District 9 (2009) November 29, 2009Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
Tags: District 9, Jason Cope, Neill Blompkamp, Sharlto Copley
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009
The author of this review had misfortune of having to live in time and place characterised by wanton display of man’s inhumanity to man. Needless to say, much of that inhumanity was fuelled by differences in culture, religion, political persuasion and ethnicity – usually not noticeable or understood by outside observers. To make things even more tragic, all that occurred in place previously deemed immunised by the decades of “benevolent”, “civilised” and “enlightened” rule, and perpetrators, rather than uneducated primitive troglodytes, having “refined” and “humanitarian” upbringing. Those experiences helped me to appreciate political, social and other allegories in DISTRICT 9, 2009 South African science fiction film directed by Neill Blomkamp.
The plot of the film, based on Blompkamp’s 2005 short ALIVE IN JOBURG, is set in alternate fictious universe where Earth received an alien visit in 1980s. The visit occurred in form of huge spaceship which ended “parked” in sky above Johannesburg. Government expedition didn’t discover any crew, and the only cargo was in form of million apparently malnourished crustacean-like aliens, physical labourers. Those aliens, nicknamed Prawns, were brought to the ground and settled into specially designed part of Johannesburg known as District 9. The interaction between newcomers and old inhabitants of the city wasn’t very fortunate – few violent incidents led to Prawns being segregated, forced to live in ghetto and, like any other underprivileged minority, indulging in vicious cycle of poverty, violence, petty crime and all kinds of social pathology.
Twenty years after arrival, multinational corporation MNU – which runs District 9 – is going to relocate Prawns to another, “safer” and more convenient location far away from the city. MNU’s official Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) is brought from desk duty to field in order to supervise the operation. His inexperience and incompetence leads to his infection with mysterious alien fluid which apparently begins to alter his DNA. Wikus suddenly becomes very valuable to his employers who would like to use him in guinea pig in some sinister experiments. Wikus, who is rapidly turning into alien, escapes from secret laboratory and the only shelter happens to be District 9. There he discovers that one of his alien “clients” Christopher (voice by Jason Cope) spent twenty years trying to extract fluid that would restart the spaceship and rescue his brethren from captivity. Wikus and Christopher forge an alliance, having to evade not only MNU’s mercenary thugs, but also about Nigerian gangsters who built their own underworld empire in District 9.
Genre connoisseurs would probably notice similarity of this film’s main premise with the main premise of 1988 Hollywood film ALIEN NATION. Those two films are, however, very different. Unlike the previous film – made in smug, self-satisfied Reagan’s America at the eve of Cold War triumph – DISTRICT 9 is clearly influenced not only by South Africa’s troubled apartheid past, but also shows author’s displeasure with the chasm between noble multi-cultural ideals of post-apartheid country and prosaic, unpleasant realities of continuing racial prejudice and ethnic strife. World today is much scarier and much more cynical place, and what might begin as noble and humanitarian endeavour, like “helping oppressed people” or “bringing democracy”, might end as brutal orgy of violence and exploitation. Blomkamp sees what a man can do to his own kind and logically concludes that aliens won’t fare any better.
This message of DISTRICT 9 is so effective because of Blomkamp’s realistic approach. Realism is not only in superb special effects, but also in a way he combines them with real life shanty towns of Johannesburg. Another addition to realism is clever use of fake documentary, which not only serves as an excellent plot framing device but also helps audience to suspend their disbelief. The script also – at least for the most part – avoids the usual stereotypes. Aliens, despite their insect-like appearances, aren’t monsters, but they aren’t celestial angelic beings either. Even Christopher and his son – the most human-like and most sympathetic alien characters – aren’t without flaws. Same multi-dimensional characterisation could be found in its human protagonist, who discovers his inner humanity only when he is deprived of its outward characteristics. South African actor Sharlto Copley proves his talent by tying the audience’s sympathies towards entire course of his character’s transformation.
Blomkamp’s filmmaking talent, interesting basic idea, pessimistic and unflattering portrayal of humanity – all that makes DISTRICT 9 one of the more interesting and thought-provoking science fiction films of our time. However, it is far from being a genre classic. Blomkamp probably got overwhelmed with the desire to make film as “big” as its idea; that “bigness” is actually capitulation to genre conventions. In the second half DISTRICT 9 loses much of its edge; what began as dark comedy turns in full-blown “serious” science fiction film with clichés like escape from secret labs and bloody combat including robots. By the time film ends, most of the audience could feel unpleasant not only because they saw negative portrayal of humanity, but also because DISTRICT 9 became unsatisfactory combination of “brainless” genre film and clever political allegory. However, despite this minor disappointment, DISTRICT 9 deserves recommendation as one of the most interesting films of our times.