DVD Tuesday: ‘District 9’ & ‘(500) Days of Summer’

by W. Andrew Powell

Sharlto Copley in a scene from 'District 9'

Sharlto Copley in a scene from 'District 9'

Fresh this week on Blu-ray and DVD, Neill Blomkamp‘s District 9 takes sci-fi to a whole new level; Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play hopelessly mismatched lovers in (500) Days of Summer; plus a look at the animated action film, 9.

District 9
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Mandla Gaduka
Director: Neill Blomkamp

While audiences are still raving about James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the other hugely notable sci-fi movies of the year has finally arrived on Blu-ray and DVD. I’m talking about director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, a film that is not only mesmerizing and thoughtful, it was also made for a tenth of the cost of Cameron’s epic, and yet it is still one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.

Shot documentary-style, Blomkamp’s film is set in Johannesburg, South Africa where a massive space ship has parked itself above the city. With no movement for weeks, the military cuts open the ship to discover millions of aliens, who look like a cross between a human and a lobster, barely surviving in their own filth.

With the ship completely inoperable, the company Multi-National United steps forward to deal with the refugees, creating the equivalent of a barricaded slum for the aliens and locking them away from the rest of the city who have come to resent and revile the intruders.

Dubbed “prawns”, the alien refugees are left to fend for themselves in a shanty town where they sell their technology to human thugs and crime lords for cat food, a delicacy among the aliens. Meanwhile, MNU are not the simple peacekeepers of the situation and are actually working to unlock the secrets of alien weapons that have been confiscated, but were originally made to only work with alien DNA.

Set some twenty years after the aliens first arrived, the movie starts as Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a harassed paper-pusher at the MNU who is far out of his depth, has been charged with evicting the prawn from District 9 and moving them to a new holding area far outside of the city. Backed up by MNU militia, Wikus handles the situation poorly and ends up contaminating himself with a fluid that begins an awful process, slowly transforming him into a half-prawn mutant.

Much like Wikus, District 9 is a bit of a mutant itself, crossing the lines between a brainy sci-fi drama, and an all-out action film. The trick is that it avoids the usual plot points and instead leaps at every chance to do something different. That goes as much for the performances as it does for the script, cinematography, and special effects; a rare accomplishment for a sci-fi film.

Dealing with xenophobia and racism at its core, District 9 touches on a number of issues without browbeating and without even really sticking to conventions. At the same time, the film really all comes down to Copley, who is a marvellous star, transforming Wikus from the desk-jokey to… something else. Copley’s transformation across the film is utterly spectacular in the way that he turns this irresolute but daft lackey into a brand new man.

What I love most about the film, aside from the fact that the special effects are practically perfect, is that you hardly feel like the effects are there half the time, proving once again that it only takes brains and talent to make a great movie, not necessarily a $300 million budget.

Looking at the Blu-ray package, the film comes with an incredible collection of features. The commentary with Blomkamp is enlightening and even thought-provoking, although oddly enough it was recorded prior to the release of the film. Of course there are also multiple making-of features that look deeper into work that went into making the film possible.

I also was impressed with The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log, which goes behind the scenes with Blomkamp, as well as the features that take an intriguing look at how Wikus is transformed throughout the film, and the other feature which looks at how much of the film’s dialogue was improvised, helping to make the film feel more realistic.

Also included are features that look at the art design, visual effects, plus a set of impressive interactive maps looking at Johannesburg from above, and also letting you wander through the different parts of the film’s key locations. Gamers with access to a PlayStation 3 may also appreciate the playable God of War III demo that comes with the package.

Overall, a fantastic release, and one of my absolute favorite films from 2009.

(500) Days of Summer
Starring: Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Clark Gregg, Minka Kelly
Director: Marc Webb

Another one of my favorite films of the year is director Marc Webb’s off-beat dramedy, (500) Days of Summer, which follows the often convoluted relationship between Tom, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the girl of his dreams, Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel.

As the narrator warns us right away, however, “This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story.”

On the one hand, Tom is a dreamer, a writer and a guy who sees the beauty in architecture. He writes cards for a living, and seems to have a gift for coming up with just the right words for any occasion. On the other side, Summer is a woman who doesn’t open up easily, and seems to keep Tom at arm’s length. Clearly, she cares for Tom on some level, but as the film plays out rapid-fire across some of those 500 days that Tom dreams of Summer, it’s becomes obvious that Tom isn’t actually happy with his life, and maybe Summer isn’t going to help make him happy either.

Wonderfully refreshing, cleverly written, and told with an oddly disjointed sense of clarity, (500) Days of Summer reminds me, somewhat of the film Stranger Than Fiction, utilizing an all-knowing narrator while giving us a peek into Tom’s life, frequently from his own perspective. Listening to the film’s commentary, I also couldn’t help but feel a bit impressed by the fact that co-writer Scott Neustadter admitted that the story was essentially based on a real romance.

(500) Days of Summer is a wonderful film, whatever it is based on, and I highly recommend it, especially since it actually does work as a romance on some levels, and it’s also one of the most satisfying dramedies I’ve seen in ages.

Starring: Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover
Director: Shane Acker

Not to be confused with Nine, the musical, or District 9, the alien drama, 9 is director Shane Acker’s dark and beautiful animated tale of life surviving in a world that has literally been stripped of every living thing.

Set in an apocalyptic version of Earth, 9 is what you would call a steampunk reality where ancient-looking technology accomplishes the most fantastic things. At the heart of the story are nine ragdoll robots, each with a number on their back, fashioned by a mysterious inventor who has died with the rest of civilization and left his creations to try to figure out what they’re supposed to do now.

Hiding in the ruins of a church, the small group has seemingly had a tough time of it when 9 shows up, unsure what exactly is going on. His appearance leads to questions, and issues, as one of their brightest gets captured by a cat-like robot, which seems to be one of the only other creatures in the city. As 9 pushes to go rescue their lost comrade he discovers that 1, the leader of the group, has no intention of taking that risk, but that won’t stop him from finding their friend, while searching for answers to their very existence.

Starring Elijah Wood as 9, plus the voice work of John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau, Christopher Plummer, and Crispin Glover, Acker’s film is remarkable in many ways. 9 is beautiful, sometimes even delightful in it’s design, and it has a dingy but powerful cinematic style with characters that look and feel quite lifelike.

The film even goes out of its way to make these little robots appealing, down to their hands and unique characteristics. All of this works well, but it doesn’t make the story, which is essentially quite simple, big enough to fill the requirements of a feature-length film.

There are also plot holes and unanswered questions that work against the film’s otherwise charming style. The action sequences don’t help this failing point either, but some of them are good enough that they do help forgive a lot.

Like a lot of producer Tim Burton’s other work, both as a producer and director, the story did not play a big enough part once again. Acker should have fleshed out the story more, and made sure the script worked, but if you know Burton’s resume you’ll recognize that familiar sensation of great visuals laid over an all-too-simple storyline.

The Blu-ray release comes with a few great features though, including a look at how Acker’s original 11-minute film was turned into a feature-length film, plus a look at how the characters were created, and the design behind the world of 9. Although these features are all fairly interesting, as are the deleted scenes and the commentary, the two stand-out features on the Blu-ray package is the inclusion of the original short film, and the behind-the-scenes tour with Acker – both of these features make the Blu-ray release worth the cost, as long as you can forgive the film’s lack of depth.

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