Review – District 9

District 9 [2009]

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Mandla Gaduka
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriter: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell

The best science fiction utilizes itself as a catalyst to discuss issues and ideas that are relevant to the world we live in. It’s not about lasers and stars, spaceships and warp drives – although it can include some, or all, of these things – it’s about worldly ideas expressed through otherworldly circumstances. District 9, although not one of the best science fiction films, aspires to this brand of sci-fi. Most of the film takes a thoughtful and realist look at not only the idea of extra-terrestrials coming to planet Earth, but also makes itself into a commentary on the apartheid government in South Africa. The director, Neill Blomkamp, doesn’t even make this an allusion, but an outright statement, setting the film in Johannesburg.

District 9 is largely filmed in a pseudo-documentary style, and as the film opens we get accounts from different people explaining about the arrival of an alien race about twenty years ago. The ship has been hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa, ever since. The aliens, which the humans call “Prawns” – both derisively, and because they really do look like them – have been concentrated into a specific part of the city, known as District 9. Since its initial creation, it has deteriorated into a slum, filled with crime, arms trading, inter-species prostitution, and all the other things one would associate with such a place. It’s impossible not to draw conclusions to the infamous District 6, and that’s exactly what Neill Blomkamp wants. The aliens, however, are being relocated into a new concentration camp, and the mega corporation MNU (Multinational United) has been tasked with the forced relocation. The head of the operation is Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a naïve fool of a man who obviously only got the job because he’s married to the daughter of MNU’s CEO. On the first day of the relocation, things don’t all go quite as planned. Wikus is sprayed with a mysterious black substance and slowly starts physically changing, growing a limb like one of the aliens. The weapons the aliens have can only be used by those with alien DNA, and so MNU, which develops weapons, sees this as an opportunity to finally take advantage of the new technology. Parallel and intersecting Wikus’s story is that of one of the aliens, Christopher Johnson, and his son, who are trying desperately to get back to the mother ship and get back to their planet. This is where Blomkamp’s vision has its emotional center.

Where I was at first slightly revolted by the aliens, who eat cat food and rip humans in half, as the film progressed I began to feel for them. It’s difficult not to respect the way in which Blomkamp puts the audience first in the shoes of the humans, disgusted by these aliens, and then spins things around so that we see where they’re coming from. Far from home, concentrated in a slum that no human would dare live in. I found it curious how much I actually cared about the plight of Christopher Johnson and of his son. This is despite the fact that they speak a language in clicks (like some African tribes do), which I cannot understand, they look like prawns, which I cannot physically relate to, and they’re made completely with CGI, which makes it difficult to understand them as real creatures. Yet I was cheering for the prawns and against the humans. I found that I could understand why they feel the way they do.

The special effects are extremely effective. Despite Blomkamp’s miniscule budget (compared to other special effects behemoths), he creates aliens that feel real in their surroundings, and convincingly stages the mother ship above Johannesburg without a single thought that it perhaps isn’t there. The alien weapons, and their devastating power is wonderfully (if gruesomely) portrayed. I believed what I was seeing while I was watching it. That’s the best compliment special effects of this kind can be given. Blomkamp’s direction is very skilled. It doesn’t seem like a debut film. He brings us into the reality he’s created and asks us to go along with it. I was happy to.

If District 9 has a noticeable flaw, it’s its third act. Some people have criticized it for being too heavy on the action. It is. Almost to the detriment of what’s come before. Up until then, we get a fascinating look into Blomkamp’s vision, and an extremely effective moral metaphor. Then it all turns to guns, action and exploding heads. Perhaps one could argue that District 9 earns such action at the end. I would certainly agree with that to a point, but Blomkamp seems to go on overload, perhaps as a way to make the movie more accessible to people who want that action and those exploding heads. But it’s unneeded, and it became clear to me that it was just too much. The thoughtfulness that’s exhibited earlier in the film, especially in places of pseudo-documentary style, are so well done that it’s just a disappointment to see such a devolution in the third act.

But no matter. District 9 has enough good going for it in the first two thirds that it’s well worth the slight miscalculation. Sharlto Copley gives an extremely good, and underrated performance as Wikus, the script is solid, the special effects very well-done, it has some of the best art direction of the year, and Blomkamp’s directing is surprising good for a debut. Even the overloaded action will be appealing to some. District 9 is not one of the best sci-fi films, but its aspirations to such are truly felt. That it makes such a bold statement, and executes itself so well, is to its credit, and to ours.

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