District 9
R1 - America - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan C. Stevenson (17th February 2010).
The Film

One of the most oft-discussed big budget fallouts in Hollywood – Microsoft’s canning of Peter Jackson’s supposedly lavishly overdone "Halo" project – was one of the greatest things to happen in modern movie history.

[Waits for the thousands, upon hundreds of thousands of cries-of-protest from rabid "Halo" fans to die down]

Yeah, I said it. But, hear me out. What would we, as moviegoers, have gained from the planned "Halo" adaptation? Most likely just a crappy, ludicrous, production that satisfied no one… think about it, has there ever been a truly good film based on a video game? Maybe, but there are countless other examples – far more than the few merely decent tries – that are positively appalling pieces of cinema. Could Peter Jackson and his protégé, a young filmmaker from South Africa named Neill Blomkamp, have defied all odds and created a good movie, based off of a beloved game, that would actually be award-winningly excellent and not just a fanboy pleaser? Possibly, and, maybe, someday, someone will do the unexpected with Microsoft and their "Halo" product, because the prospect of said film will not just go away forever. Someone will make it, and I might be good. But, really I don’t care. Why? Because, out of the ashes of the Jackson/Blomkamp vs. Microsoft battle rose "District 9", one of the best sci-fi action films in recent memory.

Set in an alternate timeline, where aliens came to earth in the early 1980's and settled in South Africa, “District 9” follows the exploits of lowly MNU agent Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who is suddenly promoted by his father-in-law and charged with overseeing the eviction and relocation of thousands of extraterrestrials (called “Prawns” because of their likeness to the seafaring creatures) from their Johannesburg slum, dubbed District 9 (a thinly veiled representation of the real District 6 in Cape Town), for resettlement to tighter controlled, “better” accommodations in government housing, located in another part of the city. Wikus is mostly a doofus; a bureaucrat, who, like most of the team of MNU agents that he’s been put in charge of, is an ignorant racist – for lack of a better description. Fortunately, when the evacuation of aliens all goes to hell, turning Wikus’ worldview on end, he goes through one of the most drastic transformations (both physically and mentally) I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time. Based in part on his short film “Alive in Joburg” (2005), Blomkamp takes that film’s basic premise, and expands it on a larger, more epic scale here.

Blomkamp’s cinematic debut may not be in same league of pure cerebral science fiction as, say, Duncan Jones’ largely more satisfying (in pure thinking-man terms anyway) “Moon” (2009), but it more than delivers as a piece of fascinating action/sci-fi, being both thrilling and, surprisingly, altogether not vapid or brainless. In fact, the director’s story, which he co-wrote, is based, in large part, on his youth whilst living in apartheid-era South Africa, and is pretty smart. He takes the experiences and memories of his childhood and applies the topic of segregation and the exploitation of difference races that he witnessed in his early years, to film, with an otherworldly twist. It's here, in the scripts commentary on race relations, that "District 9" stands out and becomes more than just a well-executed actioner; it goes far beyond your standard Michael Bay film, and becomes something with a bit of a message. And you know what, it's about time someone made an action film with more than what's on the surface. Not, that Blomkamp was the first to do so, but in recent years, action and sci-fi (not science fiction find you, but the lower, abbreviated cousin) as genres have become so increasingly superficial that the deeper "District 9" is, frankly, a breath of fresh air.

If you’re not looking for a story with some weight to it, which will make you thinking, that’s okay; you’ll still be satisfied with “District 9.” It can definitely just fulfill your need for tense, edge-of-your-seat action and movie-making wonder. On top of all the social commentary and “message-y”, ironic satire, Blomkamp has created a textured, realistic world. By casting unknown (or little known) actors, shooting the film as if it were a documentary and favoring the use of practical locations with little set dressing (the slums featured in the film are depressingly real; sans alien creatures, of course), he’s able to get the viewer to believe that what were watching is more than just a fictional film.

Shot for a meager $30 million dollars (which isn’t exactly small potatoes, but, for the type of film, surprising low) Blomkamp’s production looks like it easily cost twice as much, if not more. The film uses CG extensively with hundreds of computer-generated aliens populating the screen throughout the runtime. “District 9” even goes as far as having one of it’s main characters be a Prawn named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), rendered almost entirely from motion capture, and designed and created by the folks at Producer Peter Jackson’s WETA Workshops. The creatures are extremely detailed and highly credible. They don’t look out of place, or cheap, and considering the film’s tight budget, it’s incredible the amount of both detail and craftsmanship the artists were able to devote to each rendered character. Especially when you consider that said budget also went towards a huge firefight and practical effects based finale.

Neill Blomkamp and his creative team are able to pull the viewer in and captivate them with all of their mastery, and thus the action feels more real, the story is more intriguing and, like the best, the director is able to plunge the viewer headfirst into something that will have them engaged from the beginning and right until to the closing credits start their crawl. If you haven’t already done so, go out and get “District 9”, bring it home, unwrap it as fast as you can, turn on the home theater and start watching. Like now!

Video

I don’t know if it’s because I’d already seen the film on Blu-ray by the time I sat down to view this standard definition rendering, or if the 1080p Blu-ray is truly that much better, but I felt like I was watching a different film as I sat looking at the DVD of "District 9." The visual aesthetic established within will admittedly never be crystal clear or full of Technicolor gloss, because Blomkamp shot his film handheld on The Red One digital cameras, in the style of a documentary. As such, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image will never be completely perfect, but still, I feel that the DVD is pretty average. Whereas the Blu-ray is largely crackling with detail (beads of sweat, facial details like pores and intricate textures), the 480i rendition struggles to even reveal finer details in clothing and other objects at medium and close distances. Colors are stylistically drab but contrast is superb, with plenty of depth present. However, textures are soft. I see no real evidence of strong use of DNR or edge enhancement, but blocking is occasionally present (perhaps the disc is too packed with extras – see comments below) and expansive skies showcase mild posterization. It’s by no means a terrible DVD – far from it truthfully – just, in my opinion, this is a very average looking disc with more than a few disappointing areas of discussion.

Of note: Although shaky-cam is used by cinematographer Trent Opaloch, it’s done so pretty effectively, and is not nearly as debilitating or distracting as the technique seen in few other more nauseating-for-some pictures of late. In fact I think, mostly, it works well and fits the mood.

Audio

Likewise, although it’s genuinely decent for DVD, the discs default English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix failed to wow me. Again, I can probably blame my familiarity with the lossless Blu-ray offering for the underwhelming conclusion that I’ve reached here but nonetheless the film just lacks the impressive oomph and the thundering wallop that accompanied the DTS-HD Master Audio track in high-definition. Surround activity is strong, especially in the action-heavy climax, and dialogue is clear and without issue, but LFE has little life in it and the standard Dolby offering lacks the crispness and increased fidelity heard on the lossless DTS option. Perhaps had I not heard "District 9" on Blu-ray before I reviewed this disc my feelings might have been different, but as it stands I was completely unconvinced by this track.
A French dub, encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, is also included, as is an English Audio Descriptive Dolby Digital 2.0 surround mix. Subtitles are offered in English, English for the hearing impaired and French. Burnt in English subtitles compliment the brief moments of non-English dialogue in the film.

Extras

I’ll never understand why disc makers do the things they do… the 2-Disc Edition of "District 9" comes relatively stacked, but the way Sony has decided to divide up the supplements on that 2-disc set is rather odd (and somewhat bothersome). We get an audio commentary, deleted scenes, and a three-part documentary on the single disc release (reviewed within), and four other featurettes and more than a few bonus trailers on disc two.

So, Sony has tacked the commentary (fine), deleted scenes (sort of fine) and three-part documentary (why?) on the first disc, with the second platter relegated to pure supplement duty housing the final four featuretttes, which amount to around 50-minutes of material. It’s a lopsided package; the documentary should be on disc two, maybe the deleted scenes too, with the other behind-the-scenes, non-feature-related extras. I say this due to the DVD format’s limited storage capacity; I always feel that a film should get it’s own disc (or as much of it’s own disc is possible), with bonus material on their own somewhere else. I understand the commentaries need to be placed beside the film (it wouldn’t work otherwise, and they take up little space anyway), and deleted scenes are likely the next thing one watches after a film so they seem fine on the first disc too. But, here, it just seems strange to have a 35-minute documentary hogging away bits from the main presentation while a perfectly capable second disc is sitting out there not even half-full.

Unfortunately, as you can see, a single disc edition is available (and it’s what I was sent) so the decision to include the documentary on the first disc probably stems from the misguided notion that buyers of the 1-disc actually care about “value added” content like documentaries. (A hint: mostly they don’t). Supplement layout niggles aside; this is a pretty good package – and a great one when you spring for the 2-discer. The two big extras – the one’s that are included here in the 1-disc package – the audio commentary with writer/director Neill Blomkamp and the excellent 3-part making of documentary “The Alien Agenda” are musts. A Further look at the extras is included below:

Neill Blomkamp lets us inside his head with an audio commentary. He cuts directly to what we want to know with his tight, informative commentary. He talks about growing up in Johannesburg and how his love for the city influenced his work on this film. He also discusses the difficulties they faced while shooting in an actual slum and gives a bit of background on the Prawns. The director offers up plenty of technical details too, dissecting certain scenes and sequences, and further talking about the films visual style. This is great stuff, especially for aspiring filmmakers and diehard fans of "District 9."

"The Alien Agenda: A Filmmakers Log" (16x9, 34:19). Blomkamp returns, along with producer Peter Jackson, as well as other members of the cast and crew, to discuss the creation of "District 9" in this captivating making-of documentary. There’s talk of the original script, how the film came to be, a look a some of the films special effects, and how all of that was effected by the relatively moderate budget and so on. Interesting and candid, this is a must watch, especially for some of the included B-roll. The documentary is broken down into three parts:

- "Chapter 1: Envisioning District 9"
- "Chapter 2: Shooting District 9"
- "Chapter 3: Refining District 9"

22 deleted scenes (16x9, 23:28) are included. Most of the material is irrelevant side-plots and extended bits of scenes still in the movie. In all, it’s pretty easy to see why what was cut, was cut. Still, fans should check these out. Deleted scenes include:

- "MNU Agent Field Training"
- "Anti-Alien Riot"
- "Cryo Alien"
- "Kids and Space Rat Muti"
- "Kids play with Alien Technology"
- "Meat Seller"
- "Muti"
- "Shack Fire"
- "Dirk Michaels TV Interview"
- "MNU Office"
- "Aggro Alien"
- "Egg Alien"
- "Roof Alien"
- "Stolen Alien Goods"
- "Alien rips off Fundiswa"
- "Dead Dog and Alien"
- "Ghettoblaster"
- "Alien Reproductive System"
- "Bad Kids"
- "Clinic Visit"
- "Steal Tank"
- "Koobus Big Gun"

Bonus trailers are for:

- “Moon.” 32 seconds, window-boxed 2.35:1.
- “2012.” 32 seconds, 2:1 anamorphic widescreen.
- “Legion.” 2 minutes 33 seconds, 2:1 anamorphic widescreen.
- “Michael Jackson’s This Is It!” 2 minutes 30 seconds, 16x9 anamorphic widescreen.
- “Universal Soldier: Regeneration.” 1 minute 25 seconds, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.
- “The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.” [Red Band] 2 minutes 1 second, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.
- Sony on Blu-ray promo. 2 minutes 33 seconds, various aspect ratios.
- “Zombieland.” 32 seconds, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.
- “Black Dynamite.” 2 minutes 19 seconds, 16x9 anamorphic widescreen.
- “Hardwired.” 1 minute 12 seconds, 16x9 anamorphic widescreen.
- “The Stepfather.” 32 seconds, 2:1 anamorphic widescreen.
- “Blood: The Last Vampire.” 32 seconds, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.
- “Damages: The Complete Second Season.” 2 minutes 3 seconds, 16x9 anamorphic widescreen.

Unfortunately, Sony decided to only send me the meager 1-disc Edition so I can’t really comment on the additional supplements found on both the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD and high def Blu-ray. I know that the approximately 50-minutes of featurettes – titled "Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus", "Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9", "Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9" and "Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9" –are all worth a watch, or at least I assume so because the material included on the first disc is top notch… but I can’t say anything other than that.

Overall

Neill Blomkamp’s social commentary-infused, apartheid-satire "District 9" is an excellent film and definitely worthy of all the praise that it’s received in recent months, the most recent of which includes a Best Picture nom from the Academy. I thoroughly recommend the film, as it's, in my opinion, one of the best of the year. However, I do have one last bit of advice: if you’re still stuck in the dull days of standard def, the 2-Disc DVD is the only way to go as it’s only a few bucks more and has 50-minutes of additional content. Better yet, if you’re HD-ready and Blu-ray equipped spring for the stupidly awesome 1080p offering. It’s cheaper than the 2-Disc DVD at most places too, so my suggestion shouldn’t be that tough to swallow.

The Film: A Video: C Audio: C+ Extras: C Overall: C+

 


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