Release Date(s)2009 (October 13, 2020)
Studio(s)QED International/WingNut Films/TriStar Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is nobody special, just your average white South African Joe. He’s got a decent job as a mid-level paper-pusher for the weapons manufacturer MNU (Multinational United). He’s got a pretty wife, the daughter of a high-level MNU executive. He’s also expendable, the perfect fall guy for a terrible corporate assignment. You see, MNU is responsible for a walled-off Johannesburg shanty town called District 9, a place infested with crime and undesirable aliens—as in actual aliens from outer space, over a million of them, known by the derogatory term “prawns.” The bug-like creatures arrived one day back in 1982, for reasons unknown, packed starving into a giant malfunctioning spacecraft that’s been hovering over Joburg ever since. Now, the locals are sick of them, so MNU has built a new prison camp for the aliens farther away from the city, District 10. The plan is to relocate the creatures by force, while continuing to exploit their technology for profit. Of course, the global media and international rights observers are watching the operation closely, as it’s almost certain to go badly. So who better to put in charge of it—and to take all the blame—than an expendable mid-level paper-pusher? Naturally, Wikus sees the assignment as his golden opportunity, a chance to prove himself to his superiors once and for all. But when he’s exposed a strange piece of the alien’s technology, and begins transforming into a prawn himself, MNU sees the hapless Wikus in whole new light. Suddenly, he’s in a fight for his life, and the only living being on Earth that he can turn to for help isn’t even human… and has every reason to hate his guts.
Imagine a more nebbish Dwight Schrute from the American version of The Office, dropped into an administrative role in a story that’s part Alien Nation and part Enemy Mine, wrapped in the context of the social, political, economic, and racial issues of modern South Africa, and that’s Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 in a nutshell. Co-written by Blomkamp with his wife Terri Tatchell and produced by Peter Jackson, District 9 was the director’s first feature film and it remains his best. While it’s billed as a science fiction film, this is really more of a character study, with a “space opera” wrapper. It deals with high concepts to be sure, but they’re of a decidedly Earthly nature. Yet Blomkamp blends all these elements into a story that feel fresh and unique. None of this would work if not for the talents of lead actor Sharlto Copley, who burst onto the scene here in a big way. Copley has appeared in a number of good films since, but none as compelling as this one.
District 9 was captured digitally in native 4K in the Redcode RAW codec (with some HD video capture as well) using Red One cameras with Cooke S4 and Angenieux Optimo lenses (along with the Phantom HD and Sony PMW-EX1 cameras for HD). It was finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate at the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. For its release in Ultra HD, Sony went back to that original 4K capture for live action footage and upsampled the HD and 2K VFX footage to create a new 4K Digital Intermediate, complete with a new high dynamic range grade (HDR10 is available on the disc). The resulting image is a notable improvement over the previous Blu-ray presentation, though not one you’d ever call eye candy. But it’s not meant to be that—District 9 has a rough, cinéma vérité filmmaking style by design, featuring much handheld camerawork and lots of intercut news and surveillance camera footage. Nevertheless, the freshly-utilized native 4K footage provides a definite increase in detail, while the HDR grade deepens the blacks and makes the film’s bleak, washed-out exteriors more bold. Colors are accurate and perhaps a bit more nuanced, with more natural flesh tones, and richer reds and browns. This image isn’t a dazzler, but it’s absolutely the best District 9 has ever looked before.
The real highlight of this disc is a brand new English Dolby Atmos mix that’s 7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible. Sony’s previous Blu-ray had an already fine 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, but the Atmos really opens up and enlarges the soundstage. Everything is more immersive, with lots of smooth panning and greater precision in terms of the directional effects. Subtle environmental cues abound, including the sound of intercoms, the aliens’ clicking language, and vehicle mechanical noises. Dynamics are delicate at times, and bombastic at others, especially when the film explodes into a massive firefight in the third act. Bass is firm and muscular. Gunfire rattles sharply and lingers around the listener. The dialogue is clean and Clinton Shorter’s vocal and percussion infused score is presentedwith good fidelity. This isn’t quite a reference surround experience, but it’s excellent nonetheless. Additional audio options include the previous English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, along with English Descriptive Audio, and 5.1 Dolby Digital in French, German, Italian, Russian, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, and Ukrainian. Optional subtitles are available in English, English SDH, Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Brazilian Portuguese, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, and Ukrainian.
Sony’s 4K disc includes the following extras, all of them new, in 1080p HD:
- Comic-Con Extravaganza (HD – 17:18)
- Teaser Trailer (HD – 1:46)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:23)
The package also includes the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray (and it appears to be a newly-authored disc, not identical to the version released back in 2009, though the transfer and audio appear to be the same). It adds the following extras:
- Audio Commentary with director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp
- Joburg from Above: Satellite and Schematics of the World of District 9 interactive map (HD)
- Deleted Scenes (HD – 22 scenes – 21:22 in all)
- The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log (HD – 3 parts – 34:19 in all)
- Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus (HD – 9:52)
- Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9 (HD – 12:05)
- Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9 (HD – 13:18)
- Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9 (HD – 10:18)
- Comic-Con Extravaganza (HD – 17:18)
As you can see, the Blu-ray also now includes the Comic-Con Extravaganza piece, and it omits the preview trailers of the 2009 Blu-ray.
District 9 remains as compelling today as it was when it first appeared in theaters. Unfortunately, while Blomkamp has made some decent films since (Elysium, Chappie) none have been up to this level. It should also be noted that Blomkamp’s been linked to a number of high profile science fiction film projects that have fallen through (through no fault of his own), including Halo, The Gone World, RoboCop Returns, and an untitled Alien sequel. Meanwhile, he’s continued to make interesting sci-fi short films, among them Rakka (2017), which can be seen on Amazon Prime as part of Oat Studios: Volume 1. Fingers crossed that Blomkamp gets another crack at high-budget genre cinema for the big screen. In the meantime, District 9 joins his later Chappie on 4K Ultra HD from Sony (reviewed here), with Elysium set to hit the format in early 2021. It’s well worth a fresh look, and is recommended.
- Bill Hunt