From first-time writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the movie we see is the footage that was supposedly shot by three student filmmakers before they disappeared into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while making a documentary about the infamous - and totally made-up - witch.
Apart from the fact it left me feeling a little ill due to the shaky hand-held camera-work by one of the actual actors – not to mention sitting in the bloody front row of the cinema - The Blair Witch Project succeeded because it also felt like what we were witnessing could really have been the genuine article.
Primarily, it didn’t follow the normal run-of-the-mill movie formula, and it was that much more believable, and ultimately spooky, for it. We didn't see a whole hell of a lot, but what it was that that one lone camera didn't capture made the viewing all the more frightening.
Many filmmakers have followed the lead of The Blair Witch Project since and given new perspective to the zombie flick, the monster movie and the ghost story – ie. the Spanish made Rec (2007) and its impressive American remake Quarantine (2008), the underrated Cloverfield (2008) and the recently-released Paranormal Activity (2009) – among a host of others.
While alien arrival films have never been in short supply, especially since Steve Spielberg has been at work – think Close Encounters (1978), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and War of the Worlds (2005) – District 9 turns the genre on its head and gives it a big spin.
A brilliant sci-fi drama that looks at the very serious issue of racism while at the same time entertaining through some very subtle humour and some fantastic action, District 9 uses that ‘one (shaky) hand-held camera’ effect, but not exclusively, as it combines the best of what is actually a number of worlds to create a believable one - even if it features cat-food eating aliens.
It sets up proceedings in smartly-done, quick-time fashion, in documentary or ‘mockumentary’-style ala Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap or Best in Show, explaining just how a race of alien refugees, nicknamed Prawns, came to be living in the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Through various 'experts', as well as the everyday man and woman on the street, we learn that in 1982 a giant alien ship began hovering over 'Joburg' - and would remain stationed there to this day.
After breaking their way into the stranded UHO (unidentified hovering object), the military discovered that it was occupied by almost two million starving arthropod-like extraterrestrial beings living in absolute squaller.
These ETs might be wanting to phone home, but didn't have enough sense to remember the number, let alone bring an actual phone, so they were transported directly below, to the ground where they are given asylum in a confined area of the city called District 9.
However, by 2010, when the film is set, the private company that is now in charge of policing the area, Multinational United (MNU), plans to relocate the 1.8 million 'Prawns' to a new camp, District 10, 200km outside the city limits.
It's all due to increasing problems associated with the restless aliens and the frustrated humans living on each other's doorstep. Neither, alien nor human, are the friendliest of creatures after all.
As we discover, the 'Prawns' that were left aboard the stranded ‘mothership’ were the low-level workers of their society who could not operate properly without some sort of leadership. And their leaders had gone.
Though at various times some of them take part in the odd riot, armed with their unique weapons only they can operate because of their DNA, the brutish 'Prawns' are what you might call more than anything anti-social and are kept relatively in check by a constant supply of the cat food they now crave.
Adapted from writer-director Neill Blomkamp's own short film of 2005, Alive in Joburg (which also used the mockumentary-style to great effect), the basic premise used in both the six-minute and much more extravagant 110-minute version was inspired by events that took place in South Africa during Apartheid in the 1960s when 60,000 blacks were forced out of District 6, Cape Town, after it was made a ‘white’s only’ area.
Like the short, the film cleverly deals with xenophobia and social segregation, but also brings in more pure science-fiction elements, particularly after the MNU go to enforce the relocation of the 'Prawns'.
At first there is a seamless intertwining of watermarked footage from the MNU's own security cameras, both CTV and hand-held (ala the aforementioned Blair Witch), with what you might call normally-presented movie footage, before the latter takes over.
But it's no less fascinating, with the focus on the odd but entertainingly over-the-top MNU field operative Wikus van de Merwe (played by brilliant newcomer Sharlto Copley) who is given the dubious duty of trying to get the 'Prawns' to sign their individual eviction notices.
It's a tough job, Wikus at one stage getting a reply from one angry alien resident to 'fuck off!' in its own native clicking dialect.
Things go horribly wrong for Wikus when he opens a suspicious canister in the shack of a Prawn we later come to know as Christopher Johnson, and a black liquid sprays into his face.
Within a few hours he is being admitted to hospital after his left hand transforms into a Prawn's hand – a predicament borrowed heavily from classic horror The Fly (1958) and its remake (1986).
It turns out the liquid, now confiscated by the villainous authorities of the MNU, is actually vital fluid used to power a missing command module that would allow the mothership to become operational – and allow the aliens to get the hell out of town.
It is up to the slowly mutating Wikus and the intelligent Prawn Christopher to reluctantly join forces and try and recover the canister.
After escaping the clutches of the MNU, which plans to vivisect him after discovering he can now use the advanced alien weaponryt ey want for themselves, Wikus escapes and finds sanctuary in District 9, of all places.
There he reacquaints himself with Christopher - who it is revealed has secretly been working to get that ‘missing’ command module in working order - and the pair deal for their lives; Wikus promising to get back the canister; Christopher promising to get Wikus back to normal.
While the film itself steadily transforms into something a little more normal in presentation, it remains brilliant cinema, Blomkamp using some impressive special effects, as well as genuine South African slums as a backdrop, to ram home that realism even during an absorbing action-packed finale.
The CGI aliens themselves look great and have come a long way since Alive in Joburg when they were nothing more than actors in prawn masks and wrapped up in blankets and coats, like ET on Elliott's bike, while that vision of the hovering mothership is spectacular in appearance.
Offered up after a film adaptation of video game Halo Blomkamp was to helm fell through, producer Peter Jackson’s $30 million has been put to good use, putting the icing on the cake of what was already an intriguing story from the South African-born filmmaker.
Considering District 9 has made over $100,000,000 at the US box office and over $200,000,000 worldwide, expect a sequel sometime soon, most likely named District 10. I can’t wait to visit.