August 14, 2009

District 9

We're from the government, and we're here to help

Grade: B +

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, and Mandla Gaduka

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

It is particularly difficult – if not nearly impossible – to produce any new science-fiction movies about extraterrestrial aliens visiting Earth that does not pilfer, intentionally or otherwise, from previous films in the same genre. When you hear that South African director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is generally about aliens marooned on our planet who have since been living among us for decades, thoughts of such similarly-themed films as Alien Nation and V immediately spring to mind. The imposing, saucer-shaped spaceship hovering over Johannesburg that brought the aliens to our planet appears strikingly similar to Close Encounters of the Third Kind…and those that blew up The White House and The Empire State Building in Independence Day. The quasi-documentary filmmaking style Blomkamp employs has drawn comparisons to Cloverfield.

District 9 actually expands on Blomkamp’s 2005 six-minute short film, Alive in Joburg, which provides a glimpse of the chaos and racism that ensues throughout Johannesburg as the aliens attempt to integrate into human society. Unlike other films of the same ilk, the aliens here – derisively nicknamed “prawns” – do not look or sound human. They closer resemble giant, bipedal insects that communicate through a series of clicking and gurgling noises that many humans have learned to translate.

First appearing in the skies over South Africa back in 1982, the starving aliens are rescued from their derelict space craft and quarantined in the titular shantytown, influenced by the real-life, Apartheid-era District 6 in Cape Town. Indeed, mirroring the forced removal of District 6’s inhabitants during the 1970s, the milieu for District 9 revolves around an effort to relocate the prawns to another concentration camp over 200 kilometers outside the city.

It is during this portion of the film that District 9 excites and intrigues. The documentary-style approach lends an unsettling verisimilitude to not just the aliens themselves, but also the social, legal, and corporate constructs that have developed around their subculture. Inside the slum, Nigerian gangsters setup a criminal enterprise in which they trade food and even sex for money and alien weaponry, largely unusable because they are compatible only with users bearing alien DNA. Mistreated by humans, the prawns adopt many of our worst behaviors, including substance abuse and criminal activity.

Outside the ghetto, businesses, modes of public transportation, and entire neighborhoods are designated as “human-only zones.” Security for the prawns has been contracted out to Multi-National United (MNU), a private corporation more interested in learning how to operate the aliens’ weapons and reaping the resulting profits.

Against this backdrop, District 9’s primary plot revolves around MNU’s new head of field operations, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who contracts a strange virus that begins to slowly transform his DNA and appearance into that of an alien (a metamorphosis that echoes The Fly). Shunned by society and hunted by MNU for his financial value, Wikus seeks refuge in District 9 with a mysterious alien named Christopher Johnson.

The remainder of the film – centered on Wikus’ pursuit of a cure and Christopher’s quest to return to his home planet – devolves into a rather traditional sci-fi action flick full of firefights and chase scenes. Moreover, the film’s point-of-view totally shifts from handheld, vérité-like video footage and retrospective interviews to a standard action movie. It is hard to decide whether Blomkamp could have maintained the pseudo-documentary tableau for nearly two hours, but even with buckets of blood splattered against the fourth wall, the film’s finale veers so far to the opposite spectrum that it relinquishes much of the promise engendered its first half.

With its history of Apartheid, the choice to set (and film) District 9 in South Africa is especially provocative. However, it is too easy to simply analogize the treatment of the aliens with human racism and thereby affirm its awfulness. The most interesting, unspoken question facing audiences members is – if faced with the reality of such extraterrestrials living among you – whether you would actually support the restrictive, oppressive measures designed to keep them at bay. I suspect most humans would. In the end, Blomkamp sows the seeds for a sequel, but it is images and themes posed in District 9’s opening act that will linger longest.

Neil Morris

1 comment:

chi flat iron said...

Ha! For us non-americans, the accents were a highlight - it was nice to have recognition that not everyone in the universe has an american accent ;)
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