District 9 Blu-ray Review
Coming to region-free Blu-ray with a fantastic transfer, this US edition of District 9 is not far off reference quality.
Encoded via AVC MPEG-4, the 1.85:1 image is often blisteringly sharp, with immediate objectivity and far-off detail both captured with astonishing clarity. The humans have absolutely oodles of fine definition, from the deep Gordan Ramsey-esque crags on David James' forehead, the spikes of his little line of stylish beard and the stubble on his shaved bonce, to the tufts of hair dotted around the bare patches of scalp on Wikus' stricken, alien-infected head, close-up detail is extremely good and highly consistent. Beads of sweat, facial pores, blood and wounds are sharply rendered. Grime, dust and that ghastly looking Prawn contact lens that Copley is forced to wear towards the end all have a strong delineation. The heat-hazy skyline of Johannesburg may shimmer with the smog, but it is always well defined in terms of scale and building clarity even from a long way away. The mountain of rubbish - cans, old TV's, paper, clothing and dead things - that make up District 9 are also very highly detailed should you wish to peruse such things. But even Wikus' tie and shirt, the kevlar vests, the corrugated iron and the weapons have exceptionally finite composition on display.
The aliens, naturally, have lots of sharp and marvellous detail on display. Each slotted piece of their beetle-like carapace has texture and good separation. Their bodies are adorned with scraps of clothing, rags, gaffer-tape, stickers and all manner of things that have taken up residency upon them from their perennial scratting-about - and this weird fashion-sense is acutely presented with keen colours, good definition and clarity. Their mandibles, claws and eyes are fascinating to look at and this transfer will certainly allow you to do just that without a hint of smearing, noise or any artefacts to get in the way. Where you expect the image to be strong - the egg-dens, the maze of wiring in Christopher Johnson's shack, the virtual control panels of the alien ships and the combat suit - it most certainly is, but even the things like poor Tania's dressing table, with the odd scratch and scuff on it, or the notes on the board in Wikus' MNU office, or the banquet that the poor agent ends-up vomiting all over look brilliantly detailed.
There is also a fine level of three dimensionality, too. Shots looking down on the armoured convoy, or of the drop-ship spinning to the deck, or of vehicles roaring through the ghetto all possess a keen degree of visual depth. The initial approach to the city, with the mothership just sitting there in the sky, whilst all the traffic flows passed below is terrifically deep and offers some great detail even from such a distance. Wikus in the combat suit charging towards the mercenaries and Koobus, automatic extended, as Prawns encircle him - all images that have genuine depth and dimensionality to them.
Although desaturated, the film is still often quite colourful. The Prawns, themselves, are a variety of shades, some individuals much brighter than others and their personal patterns come across well. The primaries are boldly presented. Blood, human blood, that is, not the black alien goo, is rich and dark red. Much of the atrocities are seen dispassionately from a distance, but the gouts of gore they produce are still displayed with a loving lividness, and the patches of blood-soaked ground are always pretty well signposted. Flames and explosions are bright and wild, but still authentic-looking without coming across with a Michael Bay retina-scorching. Skin-tones are exacting and realistic, especially with regards to Wikus' transformation during the course of the movie, his pallor altering scene by scene to get sicker all the time. Compare that to the rich, tanned and exceptionally swarthy appearance of the vile Koobus. His Prawn-arm, or flipper as the crew called it, is seamlessly combined with him and, as such, looks just as alive and detailed as the rest of him.
Blacks are pretty strong too and there is no problem with shadow depth or integrity, apart from one hazy shot of Wikus seen in silhouette as he makes his way towards District 9 during his escape - though this may well be intentionally or unavoidably compromised due to the failing light of dusk. If I had to complain, it would be that there is a trace of very faint banding from time to time, and that, perhaps, the contrast is a little too high. Now this may just be a personal thing, of course, I mean the film does have that high-sheen, burn-out glare incorporated on purpose, though there were occasions when I found it slightly distracting. But, as I say, maybe this is just me ... so I wouldn't go assuming that this an error of the transfer. Thus, despite this observation, the whites of the MNU vehicles and weaponry have a full vibrancy that does not bloom, or stand-out too much from the prevailing ochre-tinted vista.
With no concerns over edge enhancement and no hint of DNR or aliasing, District 9 offers absolutely top-notch video quality that will proudly stand-up to a demo session to show your screen off with.
A strong 9 out of 10.
And, hey, guess what? The audio mix is just as good.
Crashing to earth with a very detailed and solid DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, District 9 knows how to come alive when the time is right. Neill Blomkamp's film is a deceptive one, folks. Don't go thinking that that semi-documentary style means that it will wimp out when it comes to the sonic fireworks. Wikus' alien adventure rocks and takes great delight in pumping across the soundfield with energy and precision.
Voices are carried all around the environment with accuracy, from shouting commands and screams to dialogue heard over radios. Speech is always very clear and detailed, even down to the exotic click-clacking of the Prawns and the babble of crowds. Positioning is pin-sharp and steered smoothly. The rears are engaged with discrete detail and carry plenty of activity during the strenuous action scenes, from thundering APC's and bullets ricocheting behind you to massive explosions and showering debris. The score from Clinton Shorter features a fair amount of ethnic wailing, actually almost as reminiscent of Black Hawk Down as some of the visuals are, and this travels well across the speakers with a rich and poignant presence. His music is well presented too, and never overpowering.
But where District 9 comes into its own is with the vast rumbling bass levels that are powerfully delivered with considerable, but always believable weight. Just listen to the tremendous vigour to be savoured when a certain spacecraft begins to come to life and reverberate across the sky. The floor shakes, the ribs rattle and you'd better make sure to fasten down any ornaments to the mantelpiece. Yet, this feels totally right and not just boosted for effect. Shock-impacts have weight and directionality, the warp-blast of the alien gun spinning victims through objects with convincing steerage and debris dislodgement. There is even the showering splat of body parts that emanate from across the front with an gleefully organic and wet sound. The skittering of earth and rocks etc when the drop-ship makes its climb upward is also well done, as is the subsequent falling of the same objects once the tractor beam cuts out. Gunfire, and this film features a lot of it, from various types of Earthbound weaponry, rips across the soundfield with aural dexterity, packing a deep clout that authentically punches through the air. Armour-piercing rounds slam into the exo-suit with great metallic crunches that promote pristine clarity over simple bombast, again showing off the sound engineers' attention to detail and never over-egging the mix just for simple effect.
I had a great time with this track and I can't imagine anyone finding anything to moan about. You've got detail, heft and precision adding up to a lossless track that really delivers. Another very strong 9 out of 10.
District 9 comes well-equipped to Blu-ray in a package that will please most people. As well as previews for Moon, 2012, Michael Jackson's “This Is it”, Boondock Saints II: All Saint's Day (featuring the sexy Julie Benz and a gun-toting Billy Connelly) and Zombieland, we get a playable demo for God Of War III.
The disc is BD-Live enabled and boasts Sony's Cinechat gubbins.
We have a very generous helping of 22 Deleted Scenes that, with a Play All option, runs for around 23 minutes. Whilst most of this stuff could clearly be cut from the final film, it is extremely worthwhile to view and a lot of it, more documentary footage that would have hailed from the opening act of the movie, adds considerably to our understanding of the human/alien dilemma. Lots of talking heads, from angry citizens and social commentators to scientists and even the guys who sell the aliens their fresh meat and offal requirments, have their say, and there is even an excised segment that gives us a TV interview with the big cheese of the MNU who, slyly, provides us with politically skewed version of what the grand scheme is all about. We also get some in-the-field MNU agent training, some more confrontations with the Prawn locals and Wikus, the finding of a cryogenic vault that the naughty Nigerians have found a new and disturbing use for. Some of the spooky weird black magic beliefs of the tribal witch-doctors are expounded and we even get to hear from a boffin about the sexual organs and reproductive system of the aliens. Although much of this is more mock-doc stuff, it really adds to the overall experience of District 9, but there are two terrific scenes that ultimately wound up on the cutting-room floor simply because they slowed things down a bit. The first sees Wikus, freshly on-the-run as he seeks help from a doctor (Jason Cope again) in an Aid Centre. Whilst Cope gives a lacklustre performance here, Copley, typically, does extremely well with his mixture of pathos, comedy and despair. The second has Wikus taking on the flame-thrower guys with an alien gun and then commandeering an APC.
In short, this is all good stuff.
Joburg From Above is a Blu-ray Exclusive. An interactive map of satellite and schematics of the world of District 9, this works very well and has lots of great imagery for you to explore in the squatter camp, itself, the mothership and the MNU headquarters. Convincing maps allow you to pinpoint and select areas and then peruse detailed images and info regarding alien hardware, weaponry and the MNU equipment. A good feature that looks great.
Another BD exclusive is the Cinechat function that gives you access to Sony's MovieIQ, which provides info on the cast and crew as well as production trivia throughout the movie.
Blomkamp's Commentary is free-wheeling, hugely informative and very enjoyable. As well as being fascinating material in its own right, the chat track is made all the more entertaining because the young director is so likeable and frank, which always goes down well. Plenty of stuff on the story, the cast and the characters to savour. A well recommended experience in Neill Blomkamp's company, folks.
Then we get a wonderful making-of documentary that has been broken down into three chapters. Played all together, the features runs for 34 mins. Entitled Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log, this gives us access to a lot of behind-the-scenes footage and on-set chronicles that covers everything from the initial pitch, following on from the collapse of Halo, to how the story was developed from out of Blomkamp's previous short film, and how the use of a real Soweto squatter camp added some gruelling reality to the movie. In a perverse irony, the location they used had actually had all of its residents recently evicted and moved on to another camp. We meet most of the cast, with Sharlto Copley on very funny form - he is an odd guy in real life, but insanely charismatic - and people like David James and Vanessa Haywood (utterly gorgeous) and Jason Cope providing plenty of backround to their characters and how they approached such an unusual concept and directing style from Blomkamp. Much of the emphasis is on how the helmer allowed and encouraged the cast to improvise and the freedom that this provided. Copley, especially, is a master at this and his ability to lead you on a merry-go-round comes to the fore throughout much of the documentary as well. The effects, visual and audio, are covered and the guys over at Weta in New Zealand get to have their say. We also hear little snippets from Peter Jackson, as well as plenty of extremely engaging input from Blomkamp and his sexy co-writer Terri Tatchell. Blomkamp, himself, comes across - as we heard in his commentary track - very well and is as genuine and personable as they come. What is also so special about him is his absolute honesty about the learning curve that they went on with this production and his sheer involvement at every level of the film-making process, whilst never once seeming egocentric or domineering.
Although lasting only just over half an hour, this documentary seems to cover a lot of ground, and it does so in a down-to-earth fashion that makes it compelling but hugely entertaining.
Next up are a quartet of featurettes that make a more focussed examination of certain critical areas of the production - namely the effects that power it up. In Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus we get 9.52 mins sitting with Sharlto Copley and his makeup team as we explore the various stages of his DNA shift from human to Prawn and how it manifests itself visually on his body. Painfully honest about the sheer tedium and discomfort of a five-hour makeup process, the actor still does his best to remain on-form and funny, whilst the artists describe the prosthetics of it all. Blomkamp confirms that he wanted no CG or visual trickery involved with this transformation, just good old school practical effects work.
Innovation: Acting and Improvisation (12.05 mins) is an expanded examination of how the actors took to their roles and were encouraged to just run with it. Copley was allowed to meddle, mess and morph his lines take after take but, as Blomkamp and Tatchell both state, this was what they wanted. So long as the main plot points were made and the beats still fell into place, then they were happy. And this ethic certainly pays off, as the film has a real-time rawness and unpredictability that really works in its favour.
Conception and Design: Creating The World Of District 9 (13.08 mins) is concerned with the art design of the sets, the shanty town and the hardware on display from medical labs and APC's to guns and costumes and the interior of the mothership. Here, we get to get hear from Captain Nasal, himself, Weta's old Richard Taylor, so monotonous and whining throughout hours and hours of LOTR material (no, honestly, I like the guy and I think he's very informative ... but that voice goes through me!), as he gives a brief overview of the film's design aesthetic before handing us over to various other bods who describe how the film gained that lived-in look of cosmic shabbiness.
Finally, we have Alien Generation: Visual Effects (9.52 mins) that takes a look at the extensive digital work done on the film from numerous scampering aliens to nuclear powered combat-suits and from drop-ships to the hanging derelict space city above Joburg.
All in all, this is a great little collection of material on the film. Blomkamp makes it clear that there will be more Prawn-cocktails to follow but, for now, this film and its lively chronicle here will provide plenty to get the teeth into.
Whether or not District 9 goes on to become regarded as a classic may well depend upon the quality and attitude of the sequel it sets itself up for in matching it for originality, spark and sheer audacity - a by-the-numbers flop could tarnish the brilliance on display here. Though given the imagination and the panache that Neill Blomkamp displays here in his fantastic debut I sincerely doubt that he would drop the ball. What he is so incredibly assured at providing is an enormous amount of fun at the same time as he is addressing some extremely important issues. The socio-political stance cannot be overlooked no matter how much offal is blasted around the screen, but the unusual setting, the sharp and perfectly reactionary characterisations, the glorious visual FX and clever combination of the humorous and the harrowing guarantee that it is a breed apart from almost anything else you've seen.
With a truly excellent and unorthodox performance from Sharlto Copley - definitely someone to watch out for in the future - and a unique twist on the buddy/buddy format, District 9 cuts a distinctive path through a crowded genre. The critics loved it but, most importantly, audiences did too. Whereas the big budget hack-jobs that came too thick and too fast this year shamelessly exploited their waiting fan-bases - step forward Wolverine, Terminator and you absurd Transformers - it was left to the less flashy SF pioneers to steal the thunder and the accolades. With Duncan Jones' Moon and Neill Blomkamp's District 9 there is proof that the genre still has rich blood pumping through its veins.
The overall package from Sony and Tristar, combined with excellent AV quality, is a fine one. The extras give a lot of background to the film's production, with fabulous input across the board from Blomkamp, smart and refreshingly honest opinions and enthusiasm from the cast and the crew, a very generous helping of deleted scenes and good use of 3D schematics, stylish menus and BD interactivity. Therefore, this release gets a huge thumbs-up from me and comes very highly recommended. Something that stimulates the grey matter as well as the adrenaline - that's got to be worth celebrating.
Roll on District 10!
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £24.77
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