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District 9
The mystery film of 2009.
District 9
A Scene from "District 9."
OPENING WEEKEND: $25,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $60,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Alatriste (7/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

July 6th, 2009: An extraterrestrial race forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth suddenly find a kindred spirit in a government agent that is exposed to their biotechnology.

What to Expect: I would like to take this opportunity to urge the filmmaking community to please, please refrain from releasing any more films with the number 9 in the title. We are looking at three such films coming our way in the next six months and they are vastly different, yet doomed to be confused. The first is November's "Nine," Rob Marshall's musical about the nine women in the life of a film director starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz and at least seven other women. The second is the CGI animated post-apocalytic film "9," which is about rag dolls fighting robots that have taken over the world (no, really) and which looks fascinatingly adorable. The third is this film, about which very little has been known until recently.

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In the modern era of big-budget tentpoles, one extreme may be James Cameron's upcoming and long-awaited "Avatar," which is said to have cost over $200 million. Anticipation is building, big marketing is planned. The other extreme would be this film, which cost less than $30 million, and has been awaited by really nobody at all. But that isn't to say that no one's paying attention. The viral marketing for this film began at last year's Comic-Con, when this film was not yet on the radar. It took the form of banners and signs posted around the convention that labeled areas as "for humans only" with a stylized alien-formed cartouche with a big red X through it, and a website address, d-9.com. At the time no one really remarked on it. It isn't hard for some banners and placards to get lost in the shuffle of advertising there. But since then, more websites have sprung up, including videos and short films.

The film is a feature-length reimagining of Neill Blomkamp's short film "Alive in Joburg," which can easily be found online, in which squiddish-insectile aliens live in Johannesburg, quarantined into slums in an unapologetic apartheid metaphor. Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson) had seen the film, along with Blomkamp's imaginative commercial direction, and was so impressed that he picked him to helm his big-budget film based on the video game "Halo." The two worked on developing that film, but when Paramount could not reach a financial agreement with Microsoft, the project fell apart. Blomkamp went on to create some short "Halo" films to promote upcoming video game releases.

Given the vacuum, and the fact that Jackson and Blomkamp were apparently enjoying working together, Jackson's partner Fran Walsh suggested that they take "Alive in Joburg" and expand it into a theatrical feature. One can't help but wonder (as many have) if they aren't doing so as a sort of try-out to prove that the relatively untested Blomkamp can handle a major release, possibly greasing the wheels to get "Halo" back off the ground. If that's the case, they're certainly going for the uniqueness and hipster cred.

The film takes place in the present, 20 years after a bunch of aliens arrived in a near-derelict spaceship. Stranded on Earth, they are herded into a dedicated zone (the District 9 of the title) and used as slave labor, while the ominous MNU, Multi-National United, is organized to manage them and possibly exploit their technology for the benefit of humans. The surrounding population of Johannesburg distrusts and fears the non-humans, while the aliens themselves begin assimilating aspects of human culture (like gangs) and unintentionally destroy stuff. Into this explosive environment comes a human agent who is exposed to alien DNA (or alien biotech, depending on what you read) and begins to see things different, eventually siding with the aliens.

"District 9" is being compared to many films that have come before. The most common comparison I'm seeing is to "Cloverfield." It certainly shares with that film a gritty, documentary feeling and an extensive viral campaign, but it lacks Abram's hand-held first-person point-of-view. I've also seen it compared to "28 Days Later" which seems to be a more appropriate stylistic comparison; that film also looks like a documentary. The narrative connection to films like "Alien Nation" and "V" are obvious; people are also tossing about comparisons to "The Blair Witch Project" for the grass-roots sleeper-hit potential.

But this viral marketing...it's pretty extensive. Screw "Cloverfield," this reminds me of the viral marketing they did for "A.I." Remember that? With all the interlocking websites and phone numbers and usernames? There's a website for MNU, then one that's actually a blog by one of the aliens about how MNU lies, and one that seems aimed at kids (with hilariously low-tech graphic design, like the website a second-grade teacher would put up for her class activities) about how MNU is using the alien tech to make humans smarter. Drilling deeper, savvy Net denizens have found names and corporations, which can then be found on Facebook, with a friended user who turns up in a different website. Recent real-world billboards and bus bench signs advise citizens to call if they see an alien outside the district. Filmmakers report that the number has received over 33,000 calls.

When I write these previews, I consider the director, the screenwriter, the actors, the producer, everything I can get my hands on. With this film, there's very little to go on. The director (who is also one of the two credited screenwriters) is virtually unknown, although I was impressed by "Alive at Joburg" and some of his short commercial work. The other screenwriter has no other credits. There are no actors in this film whose names I even recognize, and for someone who spends as much time talking and reading about actors as I do, that's saying something. The only person remotely connected to this film with any name recognition is Peter Jackson. Unsurprisingly, his name is featured prominently in the marketing. It's not clear how much creative input Jackson had in the making of this film, but I must say that just from what's been released, the film doesn't look much like his work. And if Jackson meant to give a new director a platform, it wouldn't make much sense for him to then barge in and take it over.

I am very intrigued by this film's premise. It would be a welcome departure from big-budget bombastics to see a movie about aliens where they aren't invading or blowing stuff up, and the examination of how this assimilation is or is not working out could be something interesting and new. The buzz on this film is very strong, but its visibility in the marketplace is low. The first teaser ran before "Star Trek," but before that, no one had heard of it except the die-hard film geeks. Even so, they have to go beyond viral marketing to reach the mainstream audience. Not everyone is glued to their computer screens or even is reached by viral techniques; then again, it worked pretty well for "The Dark Knight"...although one could argue that it wasn't the viral marketing but the high quality of the film and the performance of a late and much-lamented actor that drove that film's astronomical success.

It's encouraging that all of the films to which this one is being compared have been successes. "Cloverfield" more than tripled its budget, "Blair Witch" was a legendary indie-film success and "28 Days Later," while not a box office smash, returned a very respectable $45 million off an $8 million budget. Moviegoers enjoy something different, something unique that they can feel like they discovered. Call it the "little film that could" syndrome. If marketed well, "District 9" could tap that market, and if it's as good as people are saying (or hoping) it is, word of mouth will do the rest.

And people will want it to be good. When a director takes a chance on something innovative, something that pushes the envelope and dares to buck convention, we want it to be worth the risk.

In Conclusion: An intriguing premise, creepy and atmospheric trailer, extensive viral marketing and the PJ Stamp of Approval. This film has a lot going for it, including a small budget that will make it easier to show a black number to the bean-counters at Sony. If people can find it, it should do modestly well.

Similar Titles: Cloverfield, Alien Nation, V
August 14th, 2009 (wide)
December 22nd, 2009 (DVD)

TriStar Pictures

Neill Blomkamp

Sharlto Copley, David James

Total: 116 vote(s).

Science Fiction

Click here to view site

Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language.

112 min





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