Neill Blomkamp’s genius, and the secret of District 9’s appeal, lies in simplicity. The screenplay, which he co-wrote, isn’t hugely original: many of its key plot devices have been used before, most notably in James Caan’s 1988 sci-fi actioner Alien Nation.
But where others might wheel out an assortment of A-list superstars to dazzle you into submission, the 29-year-old South African director has instead fashioned his triumphant thriller using a cast of relative unknowns and a meagre (by Hollywood standards) budget of $30 million.
It’s the strength of the casting, the quality of the direction and above all the power of the lead performance that makes District 9 so memorable: it’s possibly the most intelligent, compelling sci-fi we’ve seen in years.
How does it look?
Of course, District 9’s key conceit – that aliens are real, living among us and being subjected to the sort of cruelly inhumane mistreatment that only mankind can muster – simply wouldn’t work if the special effects weren’t up to par, yet for all the modest expenditure involved, they appear miraculously convincing.
Spaceships, giant mechanical robo-suits, and, most dramatically, the myriad alien ‘prawns’ all appear consistently, remarkably real, and all add to the disquieting sense that District 9 isn’t a film at all, but some sort of fly-on-the-wall documentary insight into real events.
Picture downscaled for Blu-ray
Blomkamp’s steadycam style helps: shot entirely in 4K digital using lightweight HD cameras, it looks astonishing even on lower resolution Blu-ray, its image eschewing the grainy style favoured by some directors searching for authenticity (see Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) in favour of a pristine, TV-style clarity.
The direct-to-camera expository style of the opening scenes adds to that made-for-TV sensibility, even if Sharlto Copley’s nerdish, needlessly bureaucratic Wikus Van De Merwe cuts an especially dislikeable form during the film’s early stages. But you need to dislike him – or at least, be repelled by him – for the later narrative to work.
After becoming exposed to an alien chemical that progressively rewrites his DNA, it’s Wikus’ terror as his world collapses around him, and his confusion as his friends and family reject his cries for help, that helps him to discover inner reserves his whining former self never thought existed. Ironically, by slowly becoming an alien, he steadily rediscovers his lost humanity. (And if that sounds too 'heavy', it's not; plenty of humour as well as humanity here).
Fine picture quality aside, there’s enough surround sound entertainment on show here – courtesy of its DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack – to exercise your system’s muscles.
However, despite bags of on-screen action, this isn’t the subwoofer-stretcher many sci-fi films can be. The final confrontation is a stern test of both steering and low-frequency extension, but it’s not in the calibre of, say, Terminator: Salvation. Fortunately, the rest of District 9 is in something of a different league…
District 9 is released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 28th. The best pre-order deal we've found is at Amazon (£15.88); Play.com has it for £15.99; Zavvi for £15.95. HMV is offering an exclusive steelbook edition for £15.99.