District 9 - a sci-fi anti-apartheid allegory and the first handheld camera masterpiece?
District 9: Where aliens come to Earth and handheld comes of age
District 9, the shock blockbuster produced by Peter Jackson, isn't just notable for its box office dominance and viral marketing campaign. It's also the closest thing to a handheld masterpiece that's yet been made
Handheld on handholding … A still from District 9
Lars, time to break out that cigar. When Dogme 95 was brewing, I wonder if von Trier seriously thought his cin-emetic had any chance of influencing pop culture. With the release of sci-fi blockbuster District 9, we have the answer: the handheld style has finally come of age. The setup - filmed in to-camera interviews with its pencil-neck protagonist, Wikus Van de Merwe, and intrepid Unsteadicam as he enters the extra-terrestrial township - is jarring in the very best way. And traditional complaints of motion sickness, migraine and general inner-ear angst haven't been any barrier to the film's chances: $73m at the US box office and counting, and widespread agreement that this is the most significant big-budget film in many years.
- District 9
- Production year: 2009
- Directors: Neill Blomkamp
- Cast: Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sharlto Copley, Sylvaine Strike
Von Trier, of course, wasn't the first person to think of cribbing the 80s wedding-video look, but he did see most clearly that the style had a part to play in reintroducing dank realism to a medium with a tendency to get carried away with itself. Handheld has been on the slow road to wider acceptance - via freak 1999 hit The Blair Witch Project, Michael Mann's ongoing DV antics,Children of Men's long takes, the nervier bits of Jason Bourne's day, perhaps even The Office among the catalysts - but last year's Cloverfield was the first weapons-grade, blockbuster demonstration of the benefits, immediacy and impact-wise, of creeping in at grassroots levels, going out "live" on a single lens.
In the age of citizen journalism and a camera in every pocket, it seems perverse that you have to actively praise directors like District 9's Neill Blomkamp for grafting in guerrilla tactics into a mainstream project. (That probably speaks more about the conservatism of the studios.) Handheld shouldn't just be seen as an adventurous "choice"; it's absolutely the native style for telling an early-21st-century story like this. As some internet commentators point out, Blomkamp actually isn't 100% committed, ditching the mockumentary approach when the narrative demands on it become too great; when the "voyeur horizon" - the point at which, in reality, one would turn a video camera off (like when being hunted by a Nigerian warlord with bad teeth) presses too close. Cloverfield stomped all over that one.
District 9 might be noncommital about getting down and dirty, but its success has the potential to drag studio film-making in far deeper. Handheld encourages messy, subjective truth, not the bold statements blockbusters have traditionally traded in - which now look increasingly outdated (hence the D9 excitement). The difference between District 9 and Independence Day says it all: in Roland Emmerich's film, the mothership takes the stage Michael Bay-style, by parking up and annihilating some cherished international icon; in District 9, it's a more enigmatic creature, hazily glimpsed in the background, like a distant mountain. Perspective becomes all. Blomkamp's film dares to survey its chosen issue from multiple angles, even mouthing the multicultural black mass (and default position of most alien invasion pics) - that the best solution to the ET problem is that they just go home - before true, fascinating ambiguity begins to replicate. The sequel, if Blomkamp is brave, could be wild.
If the handheld style ushers in widespread change on this level - old assumptions put under the microscope - blockbusters really will have absorbed alien DNA.