District 9, like any good piece of cinema, will mean different things to different people. To some, it may offer a frank social commentary on the nature of bigotry and exclusionism. To others, the theme of exploitative capitalism taking advantage of the most vulnerable societal groups for financial gain may ring truest. To others still, this is a film about big focken ray guns exploding soldiers, aliens pulling peoples heads off and enormous robotic mechanoids tearing the place up. What it is in fact, lies somewhere in the narrow spaces between these closely related themes, and despite clearly being influenced by several movies and video games before it, District 9 is a film that feels wholly original and thrillingly ballsy. An unusual premise, an offbeat leading man, a unique presentation, all blend together to deliver a bona-fide instant sci-fi classic, and one of the best films of the year.
Exposition is the bane of a film with a concept. Here it is dealt with neatly, most of the first act viewing in a documentary style, we are treated to news clips and snippets of interviews with locals and experts, recapping the last 30 years of this alternate history. It is 2010, and a massive alien spaceship hangs over the city of Johannesburg, where it has hung motionless and inactive for 28 years. The aliens it carried were found to be helpless and malnourished, mysteriously unable to take control of their ship. A field hospital established directly below the ship to tend to the sick creatures has in 28 years evolved into a slum. The aliens are now a part of the community, but untrusted, unwanted and a burden on the human societies around them. Derisively nicknamed prawns, the creatures are insectoid with a certain seafoody quality to their faces and speak with a whirr of clicking and glottal stops, subtitled for our benefit. They are second class citizens, feeding on the waste of the humans, excluded from society and exploited by the Nigerian gangs set to profit from their helplessness. For with them, the aliens brought technology. They have a plethora of futuristic guns and weapons which rather than using to enslave humanity, they trade with their exploiters for cans of catfood, an irresistible delicacy. The catch is, no humans can use the tech, as it operates on a biological level with the aliens, and only they are able to make it work.
All of this is covered in the first 10 minutes, and serves to create a setting that is utterly authentic in every detail, and a premise that is totally believable. And yet for a film with such big ideas, it remains very much a story about characters and heroes. Our unlikely candidate is Wikus Van De Merwe, a bureaucrat for MNU, the private company that has been appointed custodians of the aliens and District 9. He is, in the early scenes, more akin to Steve Carrel’s version of David Brent. He relishes the attention lavished on him by the documentary crew filming him, wisecracking and mugging for the camera, as he prepares to execute the operation to serve notice on the million strong residents of District 9, that they are being evicted and moved to District 10, out of sight and mind of Jo'burg. He and his private army, MNU ominously being the world's largest private arms manufacturer, roll in to District 9 to get a million alien signatures to legalise the controversial movement of these refugees. It’s not a difficult leap to read the allegorical theme at work here, as the uncomprehending alien, living in his ramshackle hut, is presented with the eviction notice by the cheerful, patronising Wikus, encouraging him to sign here please, knowing full well he is committing the alien to what he later confesses is little more than a concentration camp. The operation is unsurprisingly met with resistance which at times slides out of control, and many aliens are gunned down. At this point however, most viewers will be on board with Wikus. The aliens are after all bottom feeding prawns. Worthless and legion, we feel little sympathy for their plight.
The film is quick to turn the tables on us and our reluctant hero however as during the search of one of the many “residences” for weapons and contraband, Wikus stumbles across an innocuous vial of liquid we, moments before, saw some of the aliens carefully cultivating from salvaged alien technology. The unfortunate Wikus is sprayed by this liquid, which sets in motion an unprecedented change in his demeanour and outlook, and he quickly learns to see things from the alien’s perspective. His journey takes him from top dog at MNU to their most wanted fugitive, and he finds himself on the wrong end of the human/alien relationship, learning the hard way the extent of the human’s exploitation of the prawns. Suddenly the most valuable biological resource on the planet, Wikus manages to escape the monstrous clutches of MNU and with nowhere to turn takes refuge in District 9. Here he strikes up an uneasy alliance with one of the aliens from earlier who was, it emerges, gathering the mysterious liquid for a much bigger purpose, and it becomes clear that getting it back from MNU is the key to both their futures.
The Wikus character, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley, is unique in film history and his performance is, in short, a revelation and will no doubt achieve him cult status. He starts the film as the office pest, irritating and unsympathetic to the plight of the aliens, yet by the final act he is an action hero and alien champion. His priorities evolve as much as he himself does during the course of the movie, his overriding motivation suddenly on his love for his wife which he pursues ruthlessly, assisting the alien cause where their needs overlap with his own. His plight is fairly harrowing, and he is really put though the grinder by both MNU and the scary Nigerian gangster kingpin, who has his own equally disturbing reasons for wanting a piece of him. By the end however, his understanding of the bigger picture means he is selflessly fighting in the alien corner sacrificing himself and his happiness for their cause, which to you and I, means Mech walkers, taking on hordes of heavily armed mercenaries, with enormous alien guns. Oh yes, did I mention the final act is an orgy of violence and gunplay? This might seem out of place given the lofty notions being explored in the first half of the film, but is in fact perfectly suited to what is after all, a pure sci-fi movie at heart. Several unfortunate marines and gangsters experience the zappy end of the alien technology with pleasingly messy results, and be sure to keep an eye out for the appearance of Half Life’s gravity gun, brilliantly used to kill a man with a flying pig. Genius.
The effects generally throughout District 9 are nothing short of amazing. The massive mothership hangs nonchalantly in the background of many shots as though it has always been there. The aliens themselves are fascinating to watch, being completely rendered in CG, they are especially effective in close up, and throughout the course of the film, we become quite attached to two particular alien characters, thanks largely to their amazing portrayal – they move from being the insectoid drone Wikus initially presents them as, to intelligent and emotional individuals that you will feel more concern for than most of the human characters. And as mentioned, when the action hots up, Blomkamp doesn’t hold back, with some of the most thrilling action sequences to grace the screen all year.
It’s not without it’s unanswered questions mind, but these only serve to deepen the mystery rather than undermine it. The origin of the alien ship for example is never fully explored, nor why they are unable to help themselves more than they do - a brief reference to their being "the workers" and therefore more docile and compliant explains away the alien's less than proactive demeanour. Also, the lack of any kind of international intervention in the affairs of District 9 is arguably conspicuous in it’s absence, and one can’t help shake the feeling that such a camp would be surrounded by 20 foot steel walls, with slightly fewer civilian humans living in it selling cat food to the aliens.
To even be considering flaws like this however, is simply testament the realism the film achieves in its portrayal of the situation. District 9 is a bold sci-fi movie, unique in its vision and presentation, and full of such a mixed bag of ideas and themes, you simply cannot tear your eyes off the screen. The way it segues from docu-drama to action romp is masterful, and the achievement of the film as a whole is nothing short of remarkable; at once thought provoking, amusing, vomit inducing, emotionally wrenching and pulse-racingly exciting, District 9 is a strong contender for film of the year. It happily draws on elements from sci-fi history like Alien Nation, The Fly and Half life, but goes on to blend them in a truly unique and refreshing way. Thank the lord Peter Jackson recognised the brilliance of what Blomkamp et al were aiming for, as without him, District 9 might have been perceived as too risky or offbeat to be a success, and ended up on some production office shelf. As it is, it ranks as one of the best sci fi flicks ever, and is a definite must see.