Netflix UK film review: District 9
Jo Bromilow | On 29, Aug 2013
Director: Neil Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley
Watch District 9 online in the UK: MUBI UK / Netflix UK / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / TalkTalk TV Store / Google Play
Before director Neil Blomkamp was bringing us visions of a dystopian future/big budget commentary on the potential future of our healthcare system in Elysium, he was offering up a slick and compelling sci-fi/apartheid commentary set in his native Johannesburg.
Blomkamp’s first outing as a director, District 9 stars his old schoolmate Sharlto Copley as Wikus van de Merwe, the man caught at the centre of this invasion flick with a twist. It’s the not-too-distant future, and an alien spacecraft has appeared in the sky above Johannesburg. But far from being a malevolent and powerful force capable of blasting the place into smithereens, the aliens on board the massive craft are starving, confused and afraid. It is up to the authorities of Johannesburg to house the refugees in the titular slum. As the camp’s size increases, Sharlto Copley’s bureacratic paper-pusher is charged with the monstrous task of rehousing the million-strong population – derogatorily nicknamed “prawns”.
Blomkamp’s preferred style of shooting (employing a documentary-style hand-held effect) is perfectly employed in the film’s opening act, chronicling the history of the alien arrival, the slums themselves, consultations with various “experts”, and Wikus’ journey as he attempts to evict the prawns from their shanty town. In the second act, though, the sci-fi element kicks in and that technique is largely abandoned in favour of a more traditional format; heroes and villains are carved out, a mysterious prawn appears with a mission of his own, while Wikus’ close encounter with the aliens leads to a deeper understanding of his crustacean-like charges – not least because he starts turning into one of them.
And that’s where the film starts to evolve beyond all recognition (perhaps symbolically, given the metamorphosis of our protagonist) – it stops letting us watch the footage and devise our own response and starts forming a story arc that explains to us what we’re seeing. By abandoning the faux-documentary for “real life”, Blomkamp swings the focus away from what he spent the opening trying to get you to look at; by fleshing out his characters, he takes the soul out of the experience. The formulaic set-up for a sequel in the final act weakens the effect even further.
That’s not to say, though, that District 9 doesn’t remain an incredibly accomplished debut. The multiple award nominations it received – including a Best Picture Oscar nod – are by all means deserved. Still, as soon as you realise you’re watching a straightforward sci-fi, you know not to care so much.
District 9 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription. It is also available on MUBI UK, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.