District 9: When tight-lipped advertising pays off!

Posted on 17 August 2009 by ShepRamsey

This past weekend’s District 9 has a distinct bragging right—so rarely does a movie come along that depends on advertising that doesn’t really tell you much about the movie (hell, many of the trailersdistrict-9-poster-1 use a lot of material that isn’t even in the movie), has a very modest budget, and doesn’t even have any big stars attached to bring in crowds.  But it still winds up blowing out the competition in its opening weekend.  Oh, and by the way, it’s a thoroughly awesome movie and a one-of-a-kind piece of great science fiction.

Science fiction is such a rich and amazing film genre, and it’s where countless filmmakers have discovered the truest fruits of moviemaking—imagination, importance, and the honest-to-god spectacle of real storytelling. District 9 is no different and introduces us to a fantastic new talent (and Peter Jackson acolyte), Neill Blomkamp.  Here is a film that has such a pure energy and genuine originality that even when—or perhaps especially when—it dips into its strangest and most disturbing tendencies, you’re enthralled completely by every last frame.  I’m proud to say that I’ve never seen any movie in my life quite like District 9, which, for me, is usually reason enough to go see the damn thing.  However in this case, it’s also fantastic filmmaking.  (Yay!)

If you’ve seen the trailers, then you know the very basic concept for this film: Aliens (of the outer-space variety) have been trapped on Earth for a couple decades with their mothership hovering, immobile, overtop of the city of Johannesburg.  In that time they’ve become victims of scorn and xenophobia, which have turned them into thieving and violently aggressive thugs.  Eventually the government quarantines them inside the titular District 9, where they live in the tiny shacks of an impoverished slum. 

This is merely the set-up for the film, which is the only thing that the trailers have really touched upon.  But the film itself does indeed have a plot of its own, complete with a protagonist who learns some good lessons on his journey.  But I don’t want to get into all that.  I don’t want to ruin the experience that the mysterious advertising has gone through a great deal of effort to set up for you. 

Most people have probably had the distinct privilege of being able to go into this movie having little idea what it’s actually about, and the whole experience has been a wonderful surprise for it.  See the film and let happen everything that will indeed happen.  district9Just know that it’s a very good movie with a very good plot and you will find yourself jettisoned to the edge of your seat from many a time to many another time. 

District 9 is one hell of a manically insane, unforgettable little sci-fi action flick.  If you need some kind of hint as to its tone, I can only say that more often than not it feels like some kind of freak hybrid of City of God and Men in Black

And if that doesn’t sell you on this movie then frankly I just don’t know what will.  This movie’s got everything you could want: action, story, sci-fi weirdness, terrific low-budget effects, exploding heads, the list goes on!

I’d like to say more, but I’ll forgo a straight review to dwell solely on this prime example of perfect movie marketing paying off quite well.  So rarely do we have this experience anymore.  This movie is currently doing quite well at the box office and I can’t really figure out why, but I’m also not complaining either.  The marketing for this film has been exceptional, what with all the “HUMANS ONLY – NON-HUMANS NOT ALLOWED” signage that I’ve been seeing at various movie theaters, but could it just be Peter Jackson’s name that’s bringing people to this movie?

People love those Lord of the Rings movies, but do they know enough about Jackson himself to really get them to come to this oddball sci-fi flick that has absolutely no recognizable names attached to it?  And Jackson’s pre-Rings sensibilities are certainly all over this thing.  It’s a funny movie—kind of goofy, really—but in a dark and endlessly deranged sort of way.  There are definite shades of Dead-Alive and Bad Taste reigning their influence all over this thing, and to be perfectly honest it seems like the kind of thing that might put off most mainstream audiences. 

district-9-poster-2 Just this weekend, the film made $37 million, eclipsing its very modest $30 million budget–although I can only imagine how much they’ve put into their pervasive advertising campaigns so far.  Lucky for Jackson and Blomkamp, however, now they can just coast along on the inevitable word-of-mouth.

Word-of-mouth seems to be such a pure and classic form of getting people to go see a movie like this.  As I mentioned before, the trailers say nothing of the movie’s actual plot and when you sit down and let the movie wash over you, it’s a whole new experience complete with so much that you’ll never see coming! 

I want more films to find ways of marketing like this—to make trailers that show you just a taste, but without giving away the entire plot (Funny People, anyone???).  Let’s inject more mystery into moviegoing, America!  Let’s all start making Kubrick trailers that pull you in with a catchy tune and a parade of adjectives and images and nothing else!  Kubrick understood the real visceral rush of going to the movies and did his best to preserve that!  Blomkamp and Jackson understand it, too, and they deserve pats on the back for preserving their film to be seen by the people who actually bought their ticket and sat down for the full experience.  I can only hope that this week’s Avatar trailer does the same thing, although if James Cameron is forthcoming enough to screen 20 fragmented minutes in IMAX screens across the country, then I guess I’m not holding my breath.                           

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