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Blu-ray Reviews: District 9

Originally published in Sound and Image, April 2010, v.23#05
Last updated 24 February 2013

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District 9
2009 - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Australia
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, John Sumner, Louis Minnaar, Vanessa Haywood, Marian Hooman, Vittorio Leonardi, Mandla Gaduka and Johan van Schoor

Movie: 5 Picture: 5 Sound: 4.5 Extras: 4.5

It may seem odd to compare a science-fiction-with-aliens movie set in South Africa with a World War II Holocaust movie set in Italy, but in some ways District 9 is reminiscent of the 1997 masterpiece, Life is Beautiful. This movie starts lightly, almost farcically, with the main character (Sharlto Copley) seeming to be an eternally optimistic bumbler. But then as the movie progresses, things get serious, and the bumbler's purposes also become serious.

Oh, and both score roughly the same on the Internet Movie Database's vote: 8.3 for District 9, 8.4 for Life is Beautiful. That suggests both of them are great movies.

But in another way it is unique. Aliens from outer space have come to Earth in many movie guises. Most commonly they have come as would-be conquerors (Independence Day, Mars Attacks, The Puppet Masters, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds). Sometimes they have come as correctors of humanity's evil ways: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). They have come for reasons unknown even to themselves: 'Roswell' (1999-2002).

But District 9 seems to be the first time they have come to earth as down and out refugees from undisclosed tribulations. Two decades have passed, and they find themselves vaguely hostile subjects to an ambivalent bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, their massive spaceship continues to hover above Johannesburg, its motive force apparently unknown, while our happy and hapless bureaucrat gets drawn into their complications.

Apparently Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson teed up a mere $US30 million for writer/director Blomkamp (born South Africa, but emigrated to Canada in his late teens) after another project had fallen through. Blomkamp put it to good use. I'm pretty sure that this movie has -- consistently -- the most visually convincing CGI of any science fiction movie I've yet seen. The aliens (called, derisively, 'prawns' by the humans) move like real creatures, have body language, and are plentiful.

The Blu-ray conveys all this with remarkable precision, including the slightly hazy, overheated, slummy nature of their ghetto. Almost full screen (the aspect ratio is 1.85:1), the picture doesn't seem to suffer from a relatively low average bitrate of slightly under 20Mbps.

Part of the reason for that is that Sony has left a fair chunk (20%) of the disc empty. Another part is that two 24 bit DTS-HD Master Audio tracks use up some of the available disc space: one in English, one in French. These tracks highlight the difficulty of comparing audio between different formats. Lossless compression systems like DTS-HD Master Audio have something to say about the complexity of the sound. If the average bitrate is quite high, that suggests that all the channels are busy, or the audio is inherently unpredictable. But something weird is happening here. In general, different language lossless compressions have quite close average bitrates to each other. But here the English track has an average bitrate of nearly 4Mbps, while the French one is only about 2.7Mbps. Yet (aside from the language), both sounded pretty much the same in the parts where I sampled the French section. What could explain the difference? Could the least significant bits of the French audio track have been zeroed, so that even though it is nominally 24 bits, it only effectively carries 18 or 20 bits of resolution?

The disc provides a number of featurettes and deleted scenes in HD, most of which are quite interesting, plus you get a director's commentary. There are persistent bookmarks so you can store your favourite viewing sections, and you get Sony's test patterns (press '7669' while the main menu is showing).

The BD-Live extras offer Cine-chat, which allows you to discuss the movie via a clunky text interface with strangers over the Internet, Sony's usual selection of trailers, and Movie iQ. This last allows access to a Gracenote online database which you can pop-up through the movie to obtain information on the actors and so on. At the moment this seems a little basic, but I have hopes for the development of this kind of system.

I was puzzled after loading the disc to get a choice between a human and an alien icon. As far as I could work out, all this does is select whether the main menu is backed by human or alien action.

Running time: 112 minutes
Picture: 1.85:1, 1080p24, MPEG4 AVC @ 19.70Mbps
Sound: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 24/48 3/2.1 @ 3958kbps (core: DTS 24/48 3/2.1 @ 1509kbps); French: DTS-HD Master Audio 24/48 3/2.1 @ 2717kbps (core: DTS 24/48 3/2.1 @ 1509kbps); English Audio Descriptive: Dolby Digital 3/2.1 @ 448kbps; Commentary (Neill Blomkamp): Dolby Digital 2/0.0 (with Pro Logic flag) @ 192kbps
Subtitles: English, English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Hindi, English (Commentary)
Extras: BD-Live Movie iQ; BD-Live Cine-Chat; Choice of Alien or Human oriented menu backgrounds; Interactive map with data on locations and items; 22 Deleted Scenes (1080p24, MPEG4 AVC, DD2.0 @ 192kbps - 23 mins); 7 Featurettes (1080i60, MPEG4 AVC, DD2.0 @ 192kbps - 80 mins); 7669 Test Patterns (1080p24, MPEG2, no audio - 1 min); Bookmarks
Restrictions: Rated MA (Australian rating); Region Free

The following video bitrate graph was generated by BDInfo 0.5.3:

District 9 video bitrate graph

© 2002-2010, Stephen Dawson