What started as a Peter Jackson Halo movie led to District 9, the feature-film debut of Neill Blomkamp in 2009. A science-fiction action film set in Johannesburg, South Africa, District 9 sees a group of "prawn" aliens stranded on Earth. They're eventually forced to relocate from one internment camp to another, leading a government bureaucrat (Sharlto Copley) to inadvertently discover the true goings-on behind their temporary residency.
Released to critical acclaim and box-office success, even netting four Academy Award nominations in the process, District 9 is the movie that put Neill Blomkamp on the map. Fourteen years later, he's still making movies, with his adaptation of Gran Turismo currently slated for a theatrical release on Aug. 25.
But why exactly is District 9 so good? In the fourteen years since its release, many have pointed to it as Blomkamp's peak film as a director, with his follow-up films failing to recapture that same magic. Before you see Gran Turismo, it's worth remembering why exactly District 9 worked so well and why it's still considered to be one of Neill Blomkamp's best movies to date.
District 9 Is Peak Action Sci-Fi
Let's go back to 2009. We have a few more months to go before Avatar would shatter box office records, and we're only a few months removed from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot. There's a dearth of original science-fiction films, and the only other major outing in this department is Duncan Jones' Moon. But here comes District 9, a film that not only addresses the idea of an alien invasion but one that does so with a sense of style.
District 9 is primarily based on a 2005 short film created by Blomkamp titled Alive in Joburg. Blomkamp's short film would introduce multiple ideas to be utilized in its feature film equivalent. Interstitial interviews with authority figures and civilians provide natural exposition, establishing shots are handled via body cameras on soldiers, and action scenes carry a hand-held momentum that feels stitched together by multiple different observers. The short film feels more like a proof-of-concept when compared to District 9, but when you throw 30 million dollars at it, it can be refined into something truly special.
These elements would coalesce with a protagonist whose journey actually matters. Piet Smith, played by Sharlto Copley in his feature-film debut, is a character who is downright detestable during his first moments on-screen. While he starts out as a meek MNU executive, his exposure to an alien fuel source starts to mutate his body into the very thing he's set to work against: the prawns.
His dismissive attitude towards the creatures turns to empathy when he's subjected to their mistreatment, all while his activity against the MNU unveils just how nefarious they truly are. Couple that with a transformation into a selfless action hero, and you have a film that both wraps up satisfactorily while leaving the door open for a sequel.
District 9 Is Blomkamp's Best Movie
But what's particularly interesting about District 9 is that it arguably remains Blomkamp's biggest success. His first major follow-up to District 9, 2012's Elysium, was a visual effects powerhouse but was criticized for lacking the same kind of flair in the writing department.
Some found its environmentalist messaging to be a bit too on the nose, and even Blomkamp himself would express his disappointment with how the film ultimately came out. Similarly, 2015's Chappie was lambasted by critics despite a modest performance at the box office, failing to live up to the lofty promise of Short Circuit crossed with Robocop in its premise.
The common critique across both Chappie and Elysium, however, is one that relates directly to his debut: that they're both just District 9 again, but with a different splash of paint. Even Blomkamp's 2021 film, an overt science-fiction horror title called Demonic, would still suffer from some familiar shortfalls despite some technological innovations in its production. It's been proven that Blomkamp has an eye for brilliant visuals and interesting ideas, but the reliable execution of the latter has left a lot to be desired.
But then there's Gran Turismo. Neill Blomkamp's first film outside the science-fiction genre, Gran Turismo is a loose adaptation of the eponymous racing game franchise, taking a group of people that play the game and throwing them into a real, professional race. It presents an opportunity for Blomkamp to break free from his old wheelhouse and bring his skill set to something new, hopefully breaking a less-than-gracious streak of upsets.
Even if Gran Turismo works out to be one of Blomkamp's better movies, you could argue that its success stemmed all the way from the paramount success of District 9. Its impact may be less tangible almost a decade and a half after its release, but it no doubt holds a special place in the hearts of filmgoers everywhere.
Even Blomkamp himself is eager to return to the universe he established in his first film, with plans for District 10 floating in and out of the news cycle for years now. Once the jury is out for Gran Turismo, we may just see District 10 finally come to fruition. Until then, District 9 remains one of the best, if not the best, film Neill Blomkamp has ever directed.