It's interesting to think about the abilities of first-time filmmakers and the opportunities they are—but mostly aren't—given. Neill Blomkamp, for example, essentially built District 9 out of the rubble of his producer Peter Jackson's aborted Halo video game adaptation, and ended up making one of the best films of the year. It begs the question—where are all the other future visionaries? Toiling behind the scenes bringing someone else's vision to life? Struggling to find the money to make their would-be masterpiece?
District 9 debuts on Blu-ray as the year wraps up, and it serves as a reminder that great things can happen when folks with money give folks with ideas a chance to explore them. Packed with loads of extras and the candid participation of Blomkamp himself, the disc is one of the year's best, because it seems to have the opportunity as much to entertain as to inspire other fledgling filmmakers to follow their dreams.
Because I watched the film only once in theaters, I was interested in revisiting it once it came to home video, and specifically looking a little more closely at its blend of real-world politics and science-fiction spectacle. While I certainly didn't fall into the contrarian camp that criticized it outright as an irresponsible racial parable, I do think there is a problem with selectively associating actual events with fictional ones; can you "just" say the film is about South African apartheid without paying attention to the parallels drawn (however unintentionally) between the mostly fumbling prawns and the black Africans whom they metaphorically represent?
I actually don't have an answer for this, but I do think it's something to consider. Thankfully, the film's themes are really more humanistic than political, meaning they're about the mutual understanding and respect that develops between Wikus (Sharlto Copley) and prawn refugee Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) than whether their relationship offers any kind of profound statement about racial (or, in this case, species) harmony.
Additionally, Blomkamp addresses some of the potential criticisms that would be lobbied against the film. (He confesses at the beginning of his illuminating commentary that he recorded the track just after Comic-Con, where it was shown to limited press, but before the film was officially released.) For one, he apologizes to any South Africans who might think he created the story to capitalize on any of the more recent turmoil in the country, which he observes started weeks after he began principal photography. But more interesting is Blomkamp's ongoing assertion that the film is a satire and, moreover, supposed to be really funny. There are certainly a wealth of terrific payoffs, but the fact that he views the film comedically speaks to the fact this is meant to be entertainment, not social commentary, even if it does have some deeper, more resonant themes beneath Copley's frequently funny hijinks.
The Blu-ray looks terrific, although I think its effects work benefited a lot from being up on the big screen: The handheld cinematography and sort of shaggy structure of the story come together more easily on a large screen where it's sort of passing by and immersing the audience, but on even a large home-theater setup those same effects don't have quite the same believability. They're not significantly worse, but it seems noteworthy that I never noticed them during my viewing of the film theatrically but it was the first thing I noticed on Blu-ray. That said, Blomkamp's Redcam visuals otherwise look gorgeous and saturated on the small screen, while a full-bodied and layered audio mix allows plenty of room for both the dialogue and the sound effects.
Because I don't have a Playstation 3, and also because I don't play video games, I didn't access or test out the God of War III demo that comes with the Blu-ray. But the rest of the disc's bonus features offered hours of distracting entertainment, digging deep into the fabric of the film to examine not only its making but its meaning. "Joburg From Above" is the Blu-ray's other exclusive feature, and it's a really cool interactive overview of both the real and imagined geography that is explored in District 9. If you want to find out about the ship that Wikus hijacks, there's a schematic; if you want to see where he was detained for dissection, there's a map of the MNU laboratories. As with the maps of the spaceships on the recent Star Trek Blu-ray, this may not be material you return to that often, but it's really interesting, and it gives some additional info on how things were done—specifically within the film itself.
The featurettes and documentaries, meanwhile, offer a 360-degree portrait of the creation, production and completion of District 9. "The Alien Agenda" is a three-part documentary that really brings together all of the different ideas that are discussed piecemeal on other parts of the disc and shows how Blomkamp brought his vision to the screen. "The Transformation of Wikus" details Sharlto Copley's arduous daily makeup sessions, where he was slowly transformed into a prawn. "Acting and Improvisation" explores both the film's handheld cinematography and its improvisational filmmaking style. "Conception and Design" shows how the creatures and their world were created. And "Alien Generation" reveals how Blomkamp and company literally perfected the look of their aliens and then brought them to life.
While there's admittedly some overlap among some of these featurettes, what they show most clearly is that Blomkamp was a filmmaker not only with ideas but with the understanding of technique and the discipline to shape the work on set into the film he wanted. By all accounts, Copley was a terrific collaborator, because of his indefatigable ability to improvise new scenes and reactions from one take to the next, but Blomkamp was the guy who could draw out the most interesting developments from his actors, pinpoint the emotional throughlines of these sequences and then focus and attach them to the original framework he came up with in order to maximize their impact in the finished film. That he took on a lot of challenges that he wasn't necessarily comfortable with as a director shows his fearlessness, but the fact that he pulled off something so great shows his talent.
Additionally, there are deleted scenes, and many of them are interesting, albeit mostly because they show Jason Cope sans CGI standing in as the co-star of many scenes with Copley. (I'd have liked to see the whole film like this as an extra or something, just for curiosity's sake.) But at a time when ambition regularly outweighs discipline, technical prowess or even thoughtfulness, this Blu-ray is really an important document that shows that it's not enough just to want something; you actually have to know how to do it in order to be successful. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Peter Jackson fighting battles for you at the studio, either, but as a beautiful presentation of one of the year's most entertaining movies, a comprehensive chronicle of its making or a celebration of filmmaking vision brought to brilliant life, the Blu-ray for District 9 lives up to the quality and integrity of its content and then some.