District 9

TriStar Pictures [2009] 112′
country: South Africa / New Zealand
director: Neill Blomkamp
cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope,
Vanessa Haywood, Robert Hobbs

Twenty years ago a massive space ship stalled over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa complete with a huge crew of malnourished and downtrodden workers belonging to an unidentified [at least beyond the derogatory distinction of “prawns”] alien race.  Under international pressure, an internment camp known as District 9 is built within the city to house the population of illegal aliens and keep them separated from the wary human population.  The camp, intended to be temporary, quickly becomes a disgusting slum for the impoverished extraterrestrials.  As public opinions against them grow more vitriolic the government is pressured into creating a new camp far from the city limits.  Multi-National United – a huge arms manufacturer with a vested interest in sorting out the piles of un-Earthly technology the creatures brought with them, since rendered useless by dissociation from its owners – is put in charge of relocating the exploding prawn population, now a staggering 1.8 million strong.

Enter Wikus van der Merwe [Copley], an alien affairs officer at MNU who is promoted and tasked with evicting the inhabitants of District 9.  While handing out evictions he enters a shed where a non-threatening alien cylinder sprays a black liquid onto his face.  By the time the day is through Wikus is violently ill, to the point that he ruins his own surprise promotion party.  At the hospital it is discovered that his right arm, injured in District 9, has since transformed itself [a la THE FLY] into a prawn arm – whatever he was sprayed with is obviously having considerable effects on his DNA.  Kicking and screaming, Wikus is whisked away to an underground MNU lab for further examination.

It turns out that MNU has been conducting genetic experiments throughout the two decades since the aliens’ arrival in an attempt to unlock the secret of their bio-mechanical engineering handiwork, and Wikus is their most promising discovery in years.  The substance sprayed into his face seems to be the key – the biological compound used to power the prawn technology.  Wikus is put through a barrage of tests and made to fire each and every one of the confiscated alien weapon types [in one instance he is even forced to kill a captured prawn], but escapes when the scientists at the laboratory announce their intentions to dismember his body so that a human-friendly alien weapons control system can be devised from it.

With MNU and the government flooding the media with misinformation about his case [claiming he was engaging in illegal cross-species sex, for instance] and hired mercenaries in hot pursuit, Wikus takes refuge in the only place he can – District 9.

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The Peter Jackson produced Neill Blomkamp directed feature expansion of the latter’s inspired short film ALIVE IN JOBURG plays less as straight science fiction [there is very little science to be had at all] than as socio-politically minded actioner with sci-fi trappings.  Whatever you classify it as, it’s a fine picture and one of the few intelligent ones to have seen wide release this summer season.  The apartheid message may seem a bit overstated, with the lost and helpless aliens pitted against an evil corporation, a crazy Nigerian warlord, a ruthless mercenary squad led by a trigger-happy prawn-hating thug and the teaming masses, but the racism still in evidence in many parts of the world should show it to be as important as ever before.

Regardless of its subtextual intentions DISTRICT 9 is still an action picture first and a message picture second, but it should be commended for the fact that it compels its audience to think at all between its impressive special effects centerpieces.  The considerable digital effects work, devised mostly by Vancouver firm Imagine Engine, are quite impressive.  The aliens, slender bipedal insectoid creatures with strangely emotive eyes, are particularly well rendered and achieve a unique believability among their contemporaries – the film could easily have failed had it been otherwise.  No less impressive is the image of the omni-present mothership hovering over Johannesburg, constantly abuzz with squadrons of helicopters.

DISTRICT 9 is filmed in a faux-documentary style akin to CLOVERFIELD, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and DIARY OF THE DEAD, et al., with cleverly intercut news reports and interview segments providing much of the early exposition.  While the documentary aspect is removed from the equation roughly thirty minutes in, the style is both retained and smartly utilized, lending the picture an immediacy lacking in at least two of the previously mentioned cinéma vérité shockers.  The form returns to true-documentary in the closing reel, showing what little progress has been made on the prawn-rights front while leaving the door wide open for a future DISTRICT 10 [yes, please!].

Much as I enjoyed the picture it still has a few obvious faults, most of them on the narrative front.  The screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell teeters a bit uneasily between the seriousness of its premise and the frequent campiness of what follows.  Villains are cartoonishly constructed, especially the scowling mercenary thug, and their type have been done to death in the eleven decades of film that have come before – I’d have loved to have seen a threat posed by something other than an evil multinational corporation or racist militant scumbags.  Adding to the camp factor is Wikus’ transformation, which seems outright silly at times [re-enforcing the character’s newfound understanding of the alien plight as it may], and just what role the black fluid plays in the alien scheme of things is woefully underexplained.

That said, Blomkamp and Tatchell’s script succeeds in large part and is certainly well above average for either the science fiction or action genres.  The parallel between Wikus and the aliens, both little more than workers who lose all sense of purpose when removed from their superiors, is well drawn, as is his uneasy alliance and eventual friendship to Christopher Johnson [that the aliens are re-christened with earthly names is a clever detail].  Copley fills the role of Wikus wonderfully, and his character flows effortlessly from ignorant worker bee to man-on-the-run to unlikely action hero and beyond.  The extensive supporting cast does fine work as well, though few have enough screen time to really develop their roles.

While imperfect to be sure, there’s nowhere near enough wrong with DISTRICT 9 to sink it and certainly nothing so unforgiveable as to prevent my recommending it.  The drama is [mostly] solid, the message compelling, and the action phenomenal.  I may not have been floored, but it only missed the mark by this much.  See it.