“District 9” still has a powerful message during these uncertain times

Updated: Oct 22


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

(1&2) Afrikaner bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) was assigned to oversee the Multi-National United (MNU) alien resettlement program from District 9 in Johannesburg, South Africa to a new relocation 200 kilometers away. But, during the first day of evictions, Wikus was exposed to an alien virus.



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DISTRICT 9”


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2009, R for bloody violence and pervasive language; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu, YouTube (4K)


Best extra: The three-part “Filmmaker’s Log” 










FOUR YEARS before the emotionally-wrenching “District 9” became a surprise Academy Award Best Picture nominee, South African newcomer Neill Blomkamp (“Elysium,” “Chappie”) directed the six-minute sci-fi mockumentary Alive in Joburg.” “District 9,” he says, is “the feature-length extrapolated version of that idea.”


“I guess the unique part of the idea is that they [aliens] are homeless,” Blomkamp says during the three-part “Filmmaker’s Log.” “They pitch up on our doorstep entirely destitute. They’re starving, their ship doesn’t work … Basically, they floated to Earth in their life raft.”

The young filmmaker was pursuing any feature-film opportunity he could latch onto, so his agent gave producer Mary Parent his portfolio, which included “Joburg.” At the time she was working with Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”) on a possible film based on the video game “Halo.” It never got off the ground, but “Neill had this wacky idea for ‘District 9,’ which he pitched to us,” says Jackson, who eventually OK’d the $30 million project.


(1) During the mockumentary Wikus van der Merwe and other authorities provide a number of direct-to-camera interviews. (2) An aerial view of District 9. (3) The newly built relocation camp to house 1.8 million aliens. (4) Wikus and members of the MNU military and police prepare for the District 9 eviction orders.






Blomkamp and his wife, Canadian screenwriter Terri Tatchell, collaborated for months, fine-tuning storylines and characters. “We had boards and pictures and things all over the place,” says Tatchell. But when the “nuts and bolts” of the writing started, “I’d write some stuff and we’d swap it around,” says Blomkamp. They developed a backstory for the aliens’ arrival over Johannesburg. “A virus burnt like a wildfire through the ship and killed off the upper echelons of their society,” he says. “The large framework is that the aliens are oppressed and the humans, for the most part directly or indirectly, are responsible.”

The parallel between South Africa’s segregated society and apartheid, the country’s institutionalized system of racial oppression, was no accident.



South Africa has such a racially charged background and history, that adding this third alien element to it can make it a really interesting place for the film to take place.” — Director Neill Blomkamp



But Tatchell insists their film isn’t a political statement. “First and foremost it’s meant to entertain.”


(1) MNU soldiers roundup the aliens, referred to as “Prawns” by humans. (2&3) Nigerian arms dealer Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) controls many sections of District 9. (4) A MNU flame-thrower is used to destroy many of the alien shacks. (5) A small boy provides detail of the alien weapons, which are controlled by the Prawns DNA.





From the concise docu-style sequences of news footage and direct-to-camera interviews that open the film, we learn that the spaceship has been stalled over Johannesburg for nearly three decades, avoiding the sci-fi cliché of ships hovering over New York or Washington D.C.  A million aliens, who resemble standing grasshoppers with lobster arms, and who’ve acquired a taste for cat food, were corralled by the military contractor Multi-National United (MNU) into a shantytown called District 9.


The humans want the “Prawns” to go away, far away. The government responds by ordering a resettlement program at an out-of-sight, out-of-mind compound 200 kilometers from Johannesburg. The nervous and clueless Afrikaner bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe is assigned to oversee the task by MNU director Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar), who happens to be his father-in-law.

Sharlto Copley, a high-school buddy of Blomkamp and co-producer of “Alive in Joburg,” is tremendous as Wikus. He leads the senseless attack into District 9 with armored vehicles and flame-throwers. During one intrusion, he’s accidentally infected by an alien virus from a container of special black liquid, which triggers a lobster claw to form on his injured arm. The MNU hauls Wikus to a warehouse where they force a number of alien weapons into the claw, hoping he can fire the high-powered guns. Only alien DNA can trigger the weapons.


After a daring escape, he finds himself back in the District, his only safe haven, where he develops a new kinship with alien Christopher Johnson and his son.


(1) Motion-capture, rotomation, and keyframe animation were used to create the CGI aliens. (2) A black fuel sprays onto Wikus' face, causing a transformation of his DNA. (3) Koobus Venter (David James), an MNU mercenary takes pleasure in killing aliens. (4) Wikus and co-worker Thomas (Kenneth Nkosi) witness one of Venter's killings of an innocent alien.






EXTRAS

The 4K disc and digital version include behind-the-scenes footage and interviews during “District 9’s” premiere at the annual Comic-Con festival in San Diego. “I’d really just wanna walk around buy collectibles since I’m a geek … and I like that more than being a filmmaker,” Jackson says prior to the premiere, adding that he wasn’t sure if Copley would be the right guy to plays Wikus because his acting experience was limited. He’d mostly been a TV producer. He was soon convinced. “I’m certainly very proud and you’ll see a fantastic performance.”

Copley hadn’t seen the finished film until the premiere. “It went pretty well,” he says. “I’m sitting with Neill, and you know, 400 other people watching and just soaking it all up.” Additional carryover extras on the enclosed Blu-ray and digital platforms include deleted scenes, four featurettes highlighting the visual effects, design, the transformation of Wikus, and schematics of the “District 9” world. Another plus is the commentary with Blomkamp, which he recorded just after its screening at Comic-Con. Not knowing if the film would find a global audience still concerned him. It was a success, grossing more than $200 million, most of it in the U.S. Most action and sci-fi films of the last decade have grossed between 60 and 75 percent internationally.


VIDEO

I was shocked at how much the HDR10 toning increases the cinematic experience of “District 9.” It really pops during the interviews and handheld camerawork in and around the District. Those scenes were captured on 4K digital cameras (1.85:1 aspect ratio) from cinematographer Trent Opaloch (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Avengers: Infinity War”), but with the abundance of FX shots and the rendering time involved, were mastered in 2K. The 4K is much darker, with a deep, deep black level, producing a striking, wider contrast level, while the highlights are controlled without excessive blown-out bright areas. Facial toning is natural and the colors are slightly desaturated. Comparing the 4K to the decade-old Blu-ray, the HD imagery is way too bright for a gritty sci-fi thriller.


Overall sharpness is only a notch better on the 4K, so don’t expect any jump in resolution clarity. The inter-cutting with the TV news-like footage, which was captured on HD cameras but processed to look like standard-def TV when the spacecraft arrives in 1982, doesn’t really benefit from the expansive HDR toning.


AUDIO

The new eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack provides more depth from the ceiling to the floor and front to back, with gunfire and explosion effects and a wide range of music cues that include frantic tribal beats, choruses, and a score by Canadian composer Clinton Shorter that combines orchestration and electronics.


—  Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer


(1) A surprise celebration party for Wikus' new job appointment. (2) Wikus was transported to the local hospital after collapsing on his kitchen floor, and when the doctor unwrapped his injured arm an alien-like lobster claw was discovered. (3) Wikus was taken to a special alien morgue in the hospital basement. (4) MNU authorities try to determine the next action for Wikus. (5) Wikus' wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood) gets the news that he may never return home.






(1&2) After a daring escape from the hospital, Wikus ends up in District 9 waiting in line for food, which he gets a can of cat food - a sign that he's changing into an alien. (3) Keyframe animation was used to create Little CJ, as he views a 3D view of his home planet and moons. (4) Wikus and alien Christopher Johnson blast their way into MNU headquarters to retrieve the cylinder holding the black fuel.






(1) Wikus gets inside an alien walker bio-suit with AI technology and heavy-duty weaponry, which he uses against the MNU mercenaries. (2) Little CJ activates the mothership and MNU helicopters head toward the ship. (3&4) Koobus Venter and other MNU mercenaries have Wikus surrounded. (5) Tania remembers Wikus.




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