If any aliens happen to watch District 9, they’d probably conclude that should they ever visit Earth, they’d be better off exterminating all human life right away.
Hopefully they’d watch the whole thing first, as its well worth seeing, whether you are from this planet or not. The Peter Jackson-produced, Neill Blomkamp-directed District 9 is a low-key, fast-paced sci-fi flick that subverts the alien invasion genre, while serving as an allegory on racism, rights abuses and terrorism, particularly in reference to apartheid in South Africa during the 1960s.
Twenty years ago, a mysterious spacecraft suddenly appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. Investigations unveiled masses of malnourished, crustacean-like aliens, who were shuttled to a temporary holding zone.
In the present day, the holding area has evolved into a slum, the titular District 9, where 1.8 million aliens, referred to as “prawns”, live in makeshift shacks, surviving on raw meat and cat food, and scavenging metal for unknown projects.
Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a somewhat pompous, weedy Multinational United (MNU) bureaucrat, has been tasked with systematically evicting the prawns, directing them towards a more controlled environment/concentration camp.
Unfortunately, after coming into contact with an unidentified substance during one such eviction attempt, he finds himself undergoing a shock metamorphosis that forces him to go on the run from MNU and seek refuge in District 9 itself.
District 9 is presented in animator-cum-director Blomkamp’s signature grimy cinema-verite-style, with jerky footage of protagonist Wikus’s 74-hr-or-so plight spliced with interviews, CCTV and newscasts, all of which heighten the unsettling realistic portrayal of fantastic themes.
You can believe this is exactly what would happen if aliens did suddenly descend upon the Earth, and settled peacefully instead of immediately destroying everything a la War of the Worlds.
The special effects aren’t spectacular, but they blend seamlessly with the narrative, serving their purpose without being jarring.
The several action sequences are exhilarating and bloody, without ever dragging on for too long. Thanks to judicial editing, District 9 zips along at a varied pace, and definitely does not overstay its welcome.
Despite the dark themes and often disheartening tone, District 9 has several moments of absurd humor, mainly stemming from Wikus’s interactions with the aliens.
In one scene, Wikus condescendingly tosses “sweeties” at an alien child, who then cheekily throws it in his face. Much of Copley’s acting has an improvised, natural feel, further enhancing the realism.
Copley’s range is especially effective as Wikus goes through several transformations throughout the film, both physical and emotional. He is essentially a very ordinary man, pushed to the brink by extraordinary circumstances, and none of his actions ever ring false.
Wikus is well-complemented by the sensitive, straightforward “Christopher Johnson” (Jason Cope) and his unnamed son, the only two prawns we get to know in much depth. Good aliens are hardly new but the portrayal of the prawns is refreshing, in terms of the contrast between their looks and manner.
At first, their hideous appearances, squalid surroundings and carnivorous appetites incite fear and apprehension. It soon transpires the prawns are inherently peaceful; although powerful they will not fight unless heavily provoked – parallel with everyman Wikus.
Sadly, they seem to possess a na*vet* about so-called humanity, which suggests that wherever they come from, there is much less cruelty and deception. It’s a little hard to understand how they’ve retained their trust in humankind, considering the decades of abuse and isolation they’ve endured.
Yet while the nuanced depiction of the prawns, combined with the animalistic way humans treat them, offers a thought-provoking allegory on how ethnic minorities are extremely vulnerable to racism and rights abuses, there is still lazy stereotyping when it comes to the Nigerian gangs. The men are murderous and power-mad; the women are either cackling prostitutes or frenzied witchdoctors. While the menacing MNU officials dissect the aliens for advanced genetic research, the superstitious and primitive Nigerians simply wish to eat them.
The portrayal of MNU, the epitome of an evil corporation, and their employees is also similarly lazy and stereotypical. Perhaps the villainous two-dimensionality of both the Nigerian gang members and the multinational mercenaries was deemed necessary in order to provide suitable contrast to the benevolent aliens and more loudly broadcast District 9’s anti-corporate, anti-segregation messages. After all, it’s often the aliens that are portrayed as the soulless, destructive forces. Still, in this regard, District 9 would have definitely benefited from a few more shades of grey.
The film’s other main weakness is that it raises too many unanswered questions – about the aliens, MNU, genetics and so on. While this can be an effective way to stimulate discussion, the extent of it suggests the makers’ simply have no idea themselves. Then again, the ambiguous ending leaves room for a sequel, which is definitely on the horizon, thanks to the stellar box-office returns this US$30 million film has made so far.
In spite of these flaws, District 9 is everything a great sci-fi film should be – entertaining, imaginative, exciting and reflective of timely issues. You may want to avoid seafood for awhile afterwards though.
**** (FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS)
District 9 (2009, TriStar Pictures, 112 minutes)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Produced by Peter Jackson
Written by Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Robert Hobbs