Some critics have derided District 9 for being schizophrenic, unsure of itself — a mockumentary trying to be a sci-fi film trying to be a message movie. And the critics were right, as director Neill Blomkamp all but admits in the three-part making-of feature included in this DVD.
But far from being criticized for unevenness, Blomkamp ought to be applauded for the epic universe he constructed. His first feature film (an adaptation of the six-minute short Alive in Joburg, which he shot in 2005), District 9 — which was nominated for four Oscars — tells the story of a race of insect-like aliens whose ship peters out above South Africa’s largest city and who have been stranded in the slums there for the last 20 years. Tension runs high. South Africans of all colors want the “prawns” out, and a well-armed private security force — led by a nervous, bumbling bureaucrat (Sharlto Copley) — has amassed to relocate them to distant internment camps.
All this unfolds in the film’s first 20 minutes via jumpy news coverage, talking heads, amateur footage, surveillance recordings, sweeping panoramas of the gritty townships. Ninety minutes later, you emerge from the theater, or look away out your living room window, in a kind of daze, rubbing your eyes as if waking from a dream.
The DVD does an admirable job of dissecting that dream state. Though the disc’s extras dwell surprisingly little on the visual rendering of the film’s aliens (deleted scenes show Copley speaking to actors in what look like shiny gray pajamas studded with CGI sensors), they delve into the film’s editing, the use of multiple sources of footage, and the politics and pragmatics of shooting in the infamous Soweto townships. In an extended scene about the aliens’ strange vocalizations, a sound engineer demonstrates how he combined clicks, a frog call and the sound of a pumpkin being rubbed with his finger.
Overall, there’s a sense of playful, curious experimentation. Critics can bemoan that as anarchy, but Blomkamp has created a world — and a character, in Copley’s Wikus — that I’ll be revisiting again and again. (Rated R)