One of the most bizarre decisions in Hollywood in recent years: not to make the "Halo" movie. The popular video game series, which became a pop culture phenomenon ("Halo 3"'s first day sales: $170M), was to be backed by producer Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings" trilogy) and directed by relative newcomer Neill Blomkamp.
However, much to the disappointment of fans, the development of the "Halo" movie never seemed to get off the ground and has been shelved. While Blomkamp directed a series of terrific "Halo" short films, the movie never happened and Blomkamp has said that he has abandoned the project. Instead, he chose to do "District 9", a fascinating alien sci-fi drama. The film does have a few "Halo"-ish elements that may have been carried over, as well as a few subtle references.
"District 9" takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1982, an alien ship appeared above the city and hovered there for months, with the doors never opening. However, a mixture of fear and curiosity leads the humans nearby to give up waiting and cut their way into the ship. What they find is an alien species in bad shape - starving and worn. The creatures are dubbed "prawns" and shuttled off to a giant, grimy slum camp where they are forcefully separated from humans.
Still, when they are thought to cause trouble, a hostile military-style operation is started to try and move them further away. The operation, which is headed by government official Wilkus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is a disaster from the outset and ends with him being accidentally sprayed with an alien substance. Although he tries to hide the fact that he came in contact with the substance, it's not long before he starts showing signs of trouble and eventually, he begins to mutate.
When he realizes that the company he works for wants to do studies on him - largely in order to find how the alien DNA allows them to be the only one to use their weapons - he breaks free and heads back to District 9 in order to seek help from those he only recently tried to force out. With every station in the world broadcasting his image, he finds the only one he can turn to is Christopher, an intelligent "prawn" who may have an answer for his problem.
However, the two have a bigger problem: the military has learned of their location and are sending in a wave of ground forces after them. However, a few surprises lead the operation to turn into an all-out war across District 9.
The picture is a thoughtful action picture that starts off as a docu-drama, then goes deeper into sci-fi before becoming an all-out action movie. What's interesting about the film is that it doesn't totally abandon the ideas and themes of the first half when the second half becomes a remarkably intense action picture.
The other aspect of the picture that impresses so greatly is the look of the film. The effects - both practical and physical - are astonishing, considering the budget of $30M. Creature effects are especially terrific, and the scale of some of the battle sequences in the second half are remarkable for such a low-budget film, making one wonder at the need for spending well North of $100M for every major action picture. In terms of the visuals, the picture also certainly earns its R-rating.
The performances are quite good, with Copley (who is apparently a childhood friend of the director) offering a first-rate effort, portraying the changes - both emotionally and physically - of the character in a convincing and often powerful fashion. While it's too bad that Blomkamp didn't manage to make the "Halo" movie, "District 9" is certainly a phenomenal debut from the filmmaker. Hopefully he'll find his way back towards doing "Halo" if that film is ever made.
VIDEO: "District 9" is presented in 1.78:1 (1080p/AVC) by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The picture was filmed on HD video, using Sony cameras during some scenes, while many others were filmed with the popular Red One digital camera. This is a stellar presentation of the picture, delivering - with the exception of a few slightly softer moments - outstanding detail and clarity. One can certainly appreciate a lot of the details of the aliens and other aspects, as small object detail is often quite good.
A little bit of noise is seen in a couple of instances, but no edge enhancement or other flaws were spotted. Colors looked earthy and subdued (and while elements of the visuals are slick, the film otherwise has a gritty and harsh feel) during most of the scenes, and appeared accurately presented.
SOUND: The film's DTS-HD 5.1 presentation certainly delivered in all regards, as while a few stretches of the film delivered a forward-heavy soundtrack, the surrounds roared to life any time the action sequences ramped up - especially in the assault in the film's second half. The rear speakers delivered a great deal of discrete effects (items flying, gunfire, etc) and ambience, while the sound design as a whole is remarkably enveloping. Audio quality was terrific, with clear, powerful effects and natural-sounding dialogue.
EXTRAS: Co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp offers a first-rate commentary for the film, rarely ever pausing to stop during the running time. Throughout the film, Blomkamp chats about the experience of directing his first feature, the development of the film, working with Jackson, inspiration for some elements of the film, effects, visuals, working with the actors and more. This is one of the best commentaries I've heard in quite a while.
A lengthy set of deleted scenes is offered, running about 23 minutes. The footage provides some interesting minor details, including more about the evictions and additional documentary footage. "A Filmmaker's Log" is a 34-minute "making of" piece (3 parts, but there is a "play all" option that runs the 34 minutes) that follows the production from development (after "Halo" never happened, Blomkamp decided to roll right into "District 9"), filming on-location in South Africa, working with Jackson, production difficulties and . This is a very good documentary, but I'd like to have seen something a bit more towards an hour that would have explored some of these topics in a bit more depth.
A series of short featurettes touches on other aspects of the production, such as "Metamorphosis", which looks at how the transformation of the Wikus character was achieved. "Innovation" looks into the improv that was done throughout the picture, while "Conception and Design" takes a look into the film's remarkable visuals. Finally, we get a visual FX featurette, an interactive map of district 9 and trailers for other films from the studio, such as "2012".
A digital copy is also included, as is a game demo (for PS3 players of "God of War 3" (PS3 users also get a "making of" for that game.") BD-Live capability is also offered, including the Cinechat feature.
Final Thoughts: Blomkamp's feature-length debut is a barnburner of a sci-fi picture, delivering thrilling action, an engaging plot and fine performances. The Blu-Ray edition boasts very nice audio/video quality, as well as a nice set of bonus features. Highly recommended.
The Film A