Childlike excitement, courtesy of Sony Picture Home Entertainment. That is the best way to describe my unboxing and first impressions of District 9 on Blu-ray. Over the 24-hours, I will be spreading unprecedented love upon this film, from rookie director Neill Blomkamp. I have an editorial in the queue that waxes all about its chances at Oscar, and makes a compelling argument (in my opinion of my opinion). But first, I wanted to give you a look at the immersive experience (a new term given to us by James Cameron) that is the District 9 Blu-ray release. It is a simply constructed experience, but one that is without flab — a Blu-ray that values quality over quantity, then delivers both.
It begins with a two menu option: Human or Alien. The human menu is red and gray, like you’d expect to see in an MNU briefing video. The Alien is blue, similar to the floating computer screen that Christopher Johnson uses to fly his ship, and the heads-up display that Wikus sees when he’s walking around in the giant exo-suit. Personally, I prefer the alien version.
It then moves to the film, which is (as I’ve explained) one of the best of the year. You already know that, hopefully. Then, we dig into the special features, one by one:
Commentary w/ movieIQ
The commentary is fairly simple, a solo track with Neill Blomkamp. It was recorded just after he showed the film to the audience at Comic-Con, but before the film ever hit theaters. It is interesting to listen to him talk, with no sense that his movie is going to go on and be loved by critics and gross over $200 million worldwide. It’s a very personal movie for him, in the sense that he talks about being friends with Sharlto Copley and Jason Cope (both of whom starred in the film’s short-form inspiration, Alive in Joburg) and how much he learned while filming. As well, there are so many layers to the film — some that you may not have even seen before — that he works to explain in his commentary. It is clear that much thought went into the subtle themes that shine through as the world of D9 unfolds.
MovieIQ is a cool feature. A running connection to information that runs from scene-to-scene. It is great for a movie like this, one filled with unknowns and new faces. Unfortunately, due to the fact that I popped District 9 in 5 days before it was due to be in the hands of consumers, I wasn’t able to download the right updates — and must wait. Rest assured though, that this is not a make-or-break issue with this particular title. The movie is worth buying either way. Allow me to explain further below.
23 deleted scenes, all additional documentary style stuff, creating more ambiance. Oddly, many of the deleted scenes include characters that were never seen in the film (about half include Wikus), showing the depth of story that was created by Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell. One shows a very cool Prawn cryogenic chamber that is used for travel through space, a concept that didn’t make it into the film, but one that shows how fleshed out this universe is. One deleted scene is an interview with the head of MNU, who is seen briefly in the film. His chat adds depth to the story, further spelling out humanity’s indifference toward the rights of the prawns.
There are also a few funny interactions between Copley and Jason Cope as a prawn, one in which the prawn tries to sell the MNU agents a TV. There is also an instructional-type video about the reproductive process of the asexual prawns. No detail was spared in the creation of the District 9 universe, something that any fan of the film will appreciate.
The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log
In the Blu-ray’s longest featurette — a three-part mini-doc about the journey of Neill Blomkamp — we see everything from the moments when Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson were working on the Halo movie together, to the humble beginnings of D9‘s production, which saw Blomkamp shooting with a hand-held Sony EX-1, looking through the viewfinder. This is something that you’d rarely find on even the most moderately budgeted Hollywood film, a true sign of Blomkamp’s guerrilla approach to bringing his vision to life.
If there’s any one takeaway from watching Blomkamp talk, it is restraint. He worked within himself and did the hard work to make his vision come to life without needing to rely on effects. “You should go through things without putting effects on a pedestal,” he says, and we believe that he’s right. “My mind was never in the realm of special effects.” A practical approach, which lead to some of the most realistic alien encounters we’ve seen on film. The question — as we see in this featurette — was always, “Could we shoot clean?” It is all evidence that Blomkamp, as a director, is dedicated to authenticity. And we see through this one, 20-minute behind the scenes feature that he is instinctive, creative on the run and resourceful in creating his vision.
He is also humble: “There is an insane amount of learning that happened on this film.”
Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus
Another incredibly fascinating effect is the slow transformation of Wikus (Copley). At a certain point, it was 5 and a half hours of make-up before shooting and two more hours after to get him in and out of the prosthetics. Copley describes the concept of closing his eyes for an hour during make-up, then waking up and seeing himself with gaping wounds in his head and an alien arm. “You feel bad,” he explains. “It makes it easy to get into that character’s mind space.” Talk about method acting.
Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9
It is amazing to me how much of this featurette — which is exactly what its name says it is — is focused on the practical design done by WETA. The weapon design, the creation of the District 9 living spaces, the building of the interior of the alien drop ship. Much of the design came from the major science fiction films of the late 70s and early 80s. Films such as Alien and Aliens. Not the design of the aliens, but the design of the ship and the environments. Near the end of the featurette, when we finally see something about the Exosuit that Wikus wears at the end of the movie. Fitting with the theme of practicality, it is more about the performance and body language of Sharlto Copley, who acted out the movements so that animators could make the Exo-suit move just like its driver.
Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9
Finally, we see more about the actual visual effects in the film. What’s interesting here is to see Blomkamp talking about the difficulty of shooting improv (which was most of the film) and shooting with a guy in a gray suit (who would later be replaced by the digital alien characters).There is a great deal of focus on the role of Jason Cope, who not only plays the reporter (Gary Brenam) seen in some of the documentary footage, but also plays several of the alien characters. His performance could very well have been the one that made the movie what it was, as he provided the framework not only of movement, but of expression for the aliens.
Another takeaway is how attuned Neill Blomkamp is to the technical aspects of the CG-animation. As a storyteller, he knew his limitations but never thought twice about pushing the envelope, leaving his audience with an astounding visual experience. Over the past month, we’ve talked so much about how James Cameron got the eyes right in Avatar, essentially humanizing his CG-animated characters. But what about District 9? They got the eyes right, did they not? And with characters that must exist in our world, not one created from scratch. The technical achievement is impressive, no matter how you slice it.
Joburg From Above: Satellite and Schematics of the World of District 9
Similar to the way the Star Trek Blu-ray allowed us a close-up view of the USS Enterprise and other ships, this feature gives you an interactive look at MNU Headquarters, District 9 and the Alien Mothership. There aren’t any attached bonus featurettes or 3D rotating views, but it does add some informational depth to the environment, which is cool.
The full slate of BD-Live features have not yet been activated for this title, so it will take you buying the disc and exploring on your own to really see what is going on there. Though at this point if you haven’t already decided to buy this release, I’m not sure I can help you.
The God of War III Demo
Yes, it’s there. And while I’m not a huge gamer (haven’t played any of the God of War series), I did play for a few minutes. And damn, is this a brutal game. It might be that I’m behind the gaming times, but I’ve never seen anything quite so bloody, fast-paced and intense. It’s worth the price of the Blu-ray, if you’ve got a PlayStation 3.
The Final Word
It isn’t often that a set of special features alters my outlook on a film. But in this case, I have gone from seeing District 9 as the biggest surprise, and possibly one of the best movies of the year, to seeing District 9 as a guerrilla masterpiece. It is a movie that took the unique vision of an immensely talented young director, a director who took notes from the best sci-fi directors of prior eras, and turned it into a low-budget, high-concept work of science fiction art. And with the knowledge that I have now, which has been given to me by this wonderfully assembled Blu-ray, I can see that District 9 is something special. And you will see it too, should you take my advice and buy the damned thing.
District 9 is available for pre-order on Amazon.com. It hits store shelves on December 22, 2009.