District 9 Blu-ray Review

Aliens do not always have to arrive at Earth with the sole intention of conquering and enslaving mankind. Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extraterrestrial taught us this by presenting aliens in need of our help to survive, forging a sympathetic rather than apathetic response to their surprise presence on our world.

Another memorable departure from traditional alien invasion films that makes for an incredible Blu-ray Disc experience is South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. One step into its world reveals a beautifully disgusting refuge wasteland where over a million 7-foot tall aliens, derogatorily nicknamed “Prawns” for resembling walking grasshoppers with wiggly worm mustaches, have become a burden on human resources. Without leadership or the means to move their massive spaceship away from hovering above Johannesburg they live in squalor, illegally interact with humans and resort to crime to obtain the necessities in life such as cat food. Why they love cat food is anyone’s guess. But they do, and willingly trade their powerful weapons to warlords who cannot even fire them for a handful of cans.

Blomkamp paints the Prawn’s plight and District 9 refuge camp with heavy shadows and a gritty realness not unlike how Ron Moore approached rebooting Battlestar Galactica. Though the Prawn design makes them unable to emote through facial expressions, you feel their suffering and frustration when the MNU, an organization that polices the Prawns, comes to serve 24-hour notice evictions in an attempt to move the Prawn into a more segregated and controlled camp. As irony would have it, the only humanity on display in these nonchalant house calls comes from those without an ounce of human tissue in their body.

Leading the eviction operation is MNU bureaucratic desk jockey Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a deeply flawed man who treats the Prawn like the scourge of the Earth. He is the antithesis of a conventional hero, someone you disgust as his self-centered motivations drive him to find a cure after he accidentally infects himself with an alien substance altering his DNA and giving him the ability to use alien weaponry. In a nod to The Fly, it is only when Wikus is physically the furthest from human that he breaks down and embraces humanity and you will be on pins and needles waiting for it to happen.

Newcomer Copley, a childhood friend of Blomkamp, successfully ad libs much of Wikus’ dialogue to add authenticity to the film’s visual style that also incorporates documentary and hand-held camera shots. Visual effects including the CGI Prawn and their impressive weaponry put to use in the third act are not only incredibly lifelike but compliment scenes rather than mug for the camera. Even when Blomkamp comes closet to Hollywood as Wikus pilots a Prawn mech robot in a massive shoot-em-up against warlords and the MNU in an intense action sequence, he manages to film the mayhem in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching from behind a wall as opposed to being spoon fed the best shots only. The visuals are so impressive that strings of minor plot holes are quickly forgiven, then forgotten.

District 9’s unique visuals that bounce between documentary handheld cameras and sundrenched outdoor footage are night and day in this AVC MPEG-4 1080p transfer, as they should be. The grainy documentary footage is zapped of contrast and color while the rest of the film sports deep blacks, vivid colors and most importantly, brings out all the real world grit in Blomkamp’s set design.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally impressive with deep bass extension when the alien weaponry is fired, sharp dialogue and an abundance of ambiance and surround use, especially when helicopters are hovering above. It is the kind of mix you will want to show off to friends who cannot tell the difference between lossless and lossy audio. They will be impressed, guaranteed.

Sony put a little extra effort into the menu design by offering human and Prawn viewing options. I would have rather this been left on the drawing board for the inclusion of Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg that served as the inspiration for District 9. Unfortunately it is nowhere to be found, but there are a number of strong high definition bonus features worth exploring after the credits roll.

BD-Exclusive: Joburg From Above – An interactive feature that gives you a geographical birds-eye view of the three main areas covered in the film: District 9, MNU headquarters and the Prawn mothership. Each area can then be zoomed into for more information, images and technical specs if machinery or weapons are involved. Think of it an animated interactive encyclopedia of District 9’s world made for those who like a lot of button clicking to view all the information.

Commentary – Neill Blomkamp records this commentary right after showing the film for the first time at Comic-Con. He is clearly proud of what he considers a very personal project and speaks clearly and directly about his nervousness and feelings towards it. He is also very chatty and engaged for someone whom has never recorded a commentary track, not an easy feat without someone to bounce chatter off of. Though dry, Neill’s commentary is full of information bits and will be well accepted by anyone whom enjoyed the film.

Deleted Scenes (23:28, HD) – Several of these short deleted scenes are partially redundant to the eviction and interview shots in the completed film. They do provide the most revealing look at how the Prawn were acted on the live sets and an intriguing look at how the Prawn prepared themselves for deep space travel that was omitted entirely from the final cut.

The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log (34:19, HD) – A three-part feature that acts as a documentary chronicling the creation of District 9 from concept through shooting and into post-production. Blomkamp gets a lot of face time to discuss a lot of the “why” questions about how the film was born out of Halo, why it was shot the way it did, what drove the look of the Prawns, and so on. It plays like a meat and potatoes making-of piece without a lot of fluff which many viewers with limited schedules should appreciate.

Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus (9:52, HD) – This feature is fantastic because you get to see a lot of the transformation of Wikus that is not entire noticeable in the film. All of the transformation effects are practical which aids greatly in their authenticity in the film. Much of the process to create the various levels of transformation is also presented in detail.

Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9 (12:05, HD) – A closer look at more alternate improvisation takes rather than explaining improv would have been appreciated but this short feature is still worth a look.

Concept and Design: Creating the World of District 9 (13:18, HD) – All of the humn and MNU design decisions are revealed along with some process artwork showing earlier concepts that were abandoned. Neill talks about his inspiration for the Prawn hardware and ship designs which dates back to sci-fi films of the late 1970s through the 80s.

Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9 (10:18, HD) – This is the only feature which could have been built into the previous set of three rather than broken out into its own piece. Like the previous features there are plenty of cool tidbits about constructing the look of the film well worth taking the time to watch.

Also included are Previews for other films and Blu-ray exclusives cinechat, movieIQ and a playable God of War III E3 demo marking the first appearance of a playable Playstation 3 game demo on a Blu-ray Disc movie release.

District 9 was a blast of originality in theaters and is equally impressive, if not more so, viewing at home with high definition audio and video. The omission of Alive in Joburg is a shame, but there are plenty of other featurettes to soak in and the God of War III demo is a nice bonus that plays flawlessly. Aside from maybe Inglourious Basterds, no better recently released Blu-ray titles come to mind for a safer blind buy.

– Dan Bradley

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