Occasionally a directorial debut can be so strong that it dwarfs everything that follows, leading from one underwhelming disappointment to the next. Orson Welles, Richard Kelly, M. Night Shyamalan: all directors whose first films have cast intensely imposing shadows on the rest of their careers. (Although Welles did set a remarkably high standard for himself and did obviously still have other triumphs.) With only one film since his debut, it may be a little rash to instantly categorise South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp into this group. After all, the future may still be very bright for the director and with any luck that’s the case. But there’s no denying that his second feature, Elysium, failed to measure up to the evidently superior District 9.
In 2009, District 9 took the world by storm with its innovative style, stunning visual FX, sharp wit and original premise. Additionally, with four Oscar nominations, rave reviews, and a hefty box office take, repeating the success would not be easy. Nonetheless it’s still hard to shrug off the let-down that was experienced when its successor didn’t even come close to matching it.
To begin with, District 9 has a tight, interesting plot. Set in the city of Johannesburg, District 9 presents us with a glimpse of a world in which contact with extraterrestrial life has been made. When the alien’s ship comes to a standstill above Johannesburg, they are forced to take asylum on Earth, where they are faced with persecution and hatred and eventually are segregated into their own ‘district’. However after a while, due to heightened tensions between humans and the derogatorily dubbed ‘Prawns,’ the decision is made to move the aliens from their current district into what is essentially a concentration camp where they will be out of the way. We are thus introduced to Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely) who is in charge of the operation to move the Prawns. Wikus must serve eviction notices to the numerous residents of the district in order to effectively force them from their homes. However, when he encounters one specific Prawn to whom there is more than meets the eye, events are set in motion that build towards an epic (and violent) climax.
The film initially employs a mockumetary aesthetic, along with its spontaneous, largely improvised dialogue. However, once the plot starts to get things rolling, that is wisely dropped in favour of a more traditional style of filmmaking; a sensible move since a strained effort would have had to be made to justify it continuing. The first act of the film is consequently an immersive and imaginative exploration of the world Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell have created. There’s a fair share of details that really help to flesh the world out, whilst inter-cutting from various experts on the Prawn situation helps to skilfully enrich the back-story of the diegesis and also to strengthen the film’s allusions to apartheid. By contrast, Elysium’s fictional world feels severely underdeveloped.
The risky decision to have a morally-questionable protagonist adds to the film’s semi-grounded nature. Wikus is far from a hero; he’s deeply flawed. But despite his selfish disposition and quite disturbing character traits, Wikus is still quite endearing and likeable, mostly thanks to Sharlto Copley’s breakout performance. His character arc takes him from a despicable, prejudiced, self-centred coward to an almost noble hero. Yet the near 180-degree change is thoroughly believable because it’s gradual, because it’s not absolute and because Copley is superbly convincing. The edginess attained from placing such a complex and somewhat contemptible character in the centre is something that is lost in the transition Blomkamp makes to Elysium. Where Wikus was always engaging because he was anything but bland, Matt Damon’s Max in Blomkamp’s sophomore film is incredibly vacant.
Also, where Elysium managed to come across as rather preachy and blunt with its message, District 9 is far less heavy handed in its addressing of sociopolitical issues. Granted, you’d have to be somewhat obtuse to miss the latter’s themes and allegorical relevance but at the same time the film can be enjoyed as a sci-fi romp. However, Elysium attacks you with all the subtly of a bulldozer, as if it had something so important to say that it would be disastrous if the whole world didn’t hear it. District 9, on the other hand, never talks down to its audience. The apartheid subtext is there and the audience can make of it what they will.
The final act of District 9 is a cult sci-fi fan’s dream: mech-suits, unique alien weaponry, blood, gore and levitating pigs. The film earns its right to go out with a spectacular bang and Blomkamp deservedly revels in the opportunity. Comparatively, Elysium feels rather drab and limp. Not only does it lack its predecessors ambition and smarts, it also lacks its energy.
Still Elysium was far from a bad film; it just had way too much to live up to and not many films could follow in the footsteps of a debut as bold and exhilarating as District 9. But hopefully Blomkamp is more than a one-trick pony and can continue to have a solid career without constantly having to hear “it was good, but it wasn’t District 9“.
District 9 (2009), directed by Neill Blomkamp, is released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Certificate 15.