Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Sharlto Copley, Nathalie Boltt, Jason Cope, John Sumner, Sylvaine Strike
Release date: August 14, 2009
District 9 is the cinematic find of the year and signals the arrival of a bold new talent in the realm of visionary filmmaking. Director Neill Blomkamp, a native of South Africa expanding on his earlier short film Alive in Joburg, has given us a wondrous creation that merges the cautionary science fiction cinema of the 1950’s, the satirical scarefests of the 1970’s, and the imaginative cross-genre gross-outs of the 1980’s into one audacious and eerily thought-provoking package. Best of all he accomplished this on a budget most so-called “event films” cranked out from the Hollywood sweat shop would have blown on an overabundance of computer-generated imagery and slumming big name stars. District 9 is a marvel of modern storytelling.
In 1982, a city-sized spacecraft appeared in the airspace over Johannesburg, South Africa. Authorities forced their way into the craft and found a large number of alien creatures slowly dying. The aliens were transported from their ship to Johannesburg where a government organization known as MNU established a special camp for the aliens called District 9. The years passed as MNU attempted to figure out how best to exploit these new visitors, now being referred to as “prawns” because of their strange appearance, including trying to learn how to operate their weaponry. In the years since the aliens’ arrival, District 9 has devolved into a slum where crime, poverty, drugs, and prostitution run rampant, mostly due to Nigerian gangs lorded over by the powerful gangster Fundiswa Mhlanga (Mandla Gaduka) and the aliens are forced to trade practically everything they own in exchange for tiniest of Earth-manufactured goods.
With the conditions inside District 9 continuing to worsen, the government establishes a new refuge camp called District 10 and MNU is charged with evacuating the aliens to the new encampment, even if they have to use excessive force to get the job done. Leading the mass eviction is MNU bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who no doubt received the assignment because his father-in-law Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar) is the head of the MNU. Backing him up are a rough-and-tumble team of government-contracted mercenaries headed up by Koobus Venter (David James). During the eviction Wikus and his associates meet with resistance from some of the aliens and some violence ensues, which leads Wikus to a startling discovery with dire consequences.
District 9 is a heady brew of gruesome, over-the-top action and caustic social satire that hits hard the more you think about it. A lot of movies can throw wild stunts and special effects at you relentlessly but it is all ultimately a mess of pointless sound and fury without there being a reason for them to exist in the first place. Blomkamp’s film, which he co-wrote with Terri Tatchell, starts out in a mockumentary format similar to last year’s Cloverfield with a camera crew documenting the arrival of the aliens and the history of the District 9 compound, with interview clips sprinkled throughout, and then as they accompany Wikus and his team on the mass evacuation of the aliens from the encampment. Although Blomkamp drops this approach for the most part as the main thrust of the story kicks in the ever-present eye of the media, we see Wikus’s journey as much as the odious soldier of fortune Koobus Venter as occasionally we will see more brief interview snippets with principal characters involved in the events of the film and live news footage of the escalating events involving Wikus.
Science fiction and horror storytelling have always been our best narrative outlets for understanding the world around us and the consistently changing landscape and societal order. When genre cinema began to address the horrors of nuclear war and the paranoia revolving around the “Red Scare” back in the 1950’s, science fiction and horror could no longer be easily dismissed by the naysayers as mere juvenile pulp fiction. As America moved into the 1960’s and 70’s and the wide-scaled fears of mushroom clouds and Communist infiltration were replaced by the shifting social order signified by the Civil Rights Movement, the Woman’s Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the resistance to the war back home in the States, the genre cinema grew progressively darker and hit closer to home. Films such as Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, and THX-1138 , to name but a few, traded in the audience-pleasuring black-and-white heroics and villainy for shades of grey morality plays wrapped in increasing amounts of violence, gruesome special effects, and oppressive and skin-crawling atmosphere. The reign of terror of Charles Manson’s “family”, the Watergate scandal, the brutality and retina-scorching horror of the seemingly without end Vietnam War being transmitted to our televisions and living rooms on a nightly basis mutated into an insatiable need to shelter ourselves from the stark reality of the world we lived in by retreating into an increasingly decadent society that willfully sacrificed personal freedom in exchange for the illusion of safety and stability. Having refused to learn the lessons of the past two decades moviegoers still made smash hits out of the Swiftian satire of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and the “body horror” of the Alien films and David Cronenberg’s own directorial efforts. By the time the New Optimism of the Ronald Reagan presidency began to heavily influence the cinema and music of the 1980’s movie-going had forever been altered by the onslaught of populist filmmaking that was designed mostly as entertainment vehicles that would not require an ounce of actual thought. Films that were driven by original ideas and complex themes that could not be squeezed into a “high concept” became a rare beast in cinema.
That is why when a movie like District 9 comes along you cannot help but take notice. Neill Blomkamp takes the well-worn science fiction sub-genre of alien invasion epics and subverts it cleverly to turn a mirror onto our world as it is today. When I watched this movie I could not help but think of the aliens as another underclass exploited and ultimately ignored by the ruling class. The rickety shantytown surrounded by barbed wire fencing that District 9 became over time brought to mind the Nazi concentration camps, the “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression, the camp that housed hundreds of thousands of Cuban immigrants that landed at Mariel Harbor in 1980, and even the sub-standard trailer parks built by FEMA to house the people of New Orleans left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. In fact the alien creatures themselves are not looked upon with fascination and wonder and treated with respect and dignity, but instead are treated like any nation would treat those they consider to be illegal immigrants. Herded into camps, put under strict guard, and regarded as undesirable, the ignorant humans of Johannesburg, South Africa (a nation still living in the shadow of the horror of Apartheid) have even created their own racial slur for the aliens — “prawns.” Mankind looks on these visitors with suspicion and hatred but the aliens for once do not mean us any harm. It is not even implied how their spacecraft ended up on Earth or what their purpose there was. In reality, these aliens do not want to conquer the planet and enslave us all, although they have probably thought of it (and who could blame them). They just want to go home.
District 9 is bolstered by an original premise but it is clear Blomkamp’s film owes more than a small debt to the genre masterpieces of the past. The film has a mood similar to that of Robert Wise’s science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which the human race also greeted visitors from outer space with fear and disdain. Wikus van der Merwe’s physical and spiritual metamorphosis during the course of the story can easily be linked with the character arcs of the James Woods character in Videodrome and the Jeff Goldblum character in the 1986 remake of The Fly, both films directed by the great David Cronenberg.
This last act explosion of splatter and stunts provides us with a deserved catharsis that the story has been building towards since it began, but it never distracts from the resolution of the story and the character arcs. It is a testament to the first-rate craftsmanship of District 9’s design and effects team that they managed to create alien characters through a combination of CGI and practical effects that convey personalities, steely intelligence, and a sense of soulful longing for their home world despite being able to communicate only through a language consisting of gurgling and clicks. Thankfully subtitles are provided for our viewing pleasure.
The character of Wikus van der Merwe is our gateway into the story and our sympathies lie mostly with him as he undergoes a painful and frightening evolution of the body and soul, but there are many times when we may find ourselves questioning why we would want to take pity on this self-serving toad of a human being. Just because Wikus is the main character does not necessarily make him a nice guy. When District 9 begins the man is just another socially awkward company man who only got where he is in the MNU because of his family connections. He does not care any more for the aliens than the average person. To Wikus, the aliens are not worth much of his time and he is not the least bit concerned with their well being. It’s not until he experiences firsthand the plight of the alien creatures that his attitude towards them begins to change but even then Wikus remains only concerned with his own well-being. It could not have been a easy role to play because walking that narrow line between reluctant anti-hero and passive observer can defeat most actors, but relative newcomer Sharlto Copley rises to the challenge with a moving performance that makes Wikus van der Merwe a fully-rounded character we can empathize with even when we do not support his actions or the motivation behind them.
The only other stand-outs in the scaled back cast are the actors playing the true villains: David James as the vicious hired gun Koobus Venter, and Mandla Gaduka as the crime lord Fundiswa Mhlanga. These guys are playing the baddest of bad men and they do their jobs very well. James has a touch of Captain Rhodes from the original Day of the Dead about him, a gun-slinging bully boy dressed in military bravado. Vanessa Haywood (as Wikus’ besieged wife Tania) and Louis Minnaar (as his father-in-law and MNU honcho Pier Smit) also do good work acting-wise with the few scenes they have. Trent Opaloch’s starkly beautiful cinematography coats the world of District 9 in a shield of rust and dust, enhancing the movie’s hideous beauty. The production design of Phillip Ivey and the art direction by Emilia Roux brings Blomkamp and Tatchell’s vivid imagination to brilliant life. Clinton Shorter’s orchestral score and Julian Clarke’s film editing are both top-notch and get their jobs done of propelling the narrative without sticking out. Finally I cannot close this review out without noting the exemplary effects work by WETA Digital, working visual marvels at a fraction of what they probably received to do the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. Every skilled professional involved with this film came together to do the best work they could and the end result is a true labor of love they should all be proud of.
In a summer movie season loaded with pointless sensory overload District 9 is a real slice of cinematic science fiction alive with provocative ideas and thrilling adventure. Neill Blomkamp may not have gotten his chance to direct the Halo movie, but with this film he has proven himself capable of delivering an smart and original rollercoaster ride that may inspire some discussion and debate after the credits roll.
BAADASSSSS will return.