District 9

district9District 9 is full of contradictions.

It’s an often horrific science fiction film with uncomfortably funny scenes that would feel right at place in The Office. It’s an allegory about ethnic strife and prejudice that contains some borderline offensive racial stereotypes. It’s a B movie on a shoestring budget (by Hollywood standards) boasting special effects that rival those in films costing 10 times as much.

But the central contradiction is that a film made up of the parts of so many other movies winds up such a surprisingly original achievement.

In his motion picture debut, South African director Neil Blomkamp has crafted a thought-provoking sci-fi action film that feels as immediate and real as the evening news. Indeed, the first 10-15 minutes of District 9 is told through news clips — complete with the ubiquitous headline crawl — setting up the plot.

An alien ship hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa, its bug-like occupants (nicknamed Prawns by the locals) housed directly below in a massive slum. This ain’t Close Encounters of the Third Kind… these extra terrestrials are unruly and savage, openly hostile to their saviors/captors. Or at least they’ve become so over the 20 years since they were first pulled from the mothership and forced to live like animals.

This slum is called District 9. But increasing uprisings by both the aliens and the surrounding human population have prompted mega-corporation MNU to move the Prawns to a spot farther from civilization (District 10). The man put in charge of this operation is Wikus Van De Merwe (what a marvelous name!), a nervous and uptight fellow given the job by his bigwig father-in-law because he’s sure to fail at it.

Wikus is portrayed by first-time actor Sharlto Copley, and I sincerely hope Copley joins the ranks of those first-timers who go on to land Oscar nominations. He’s so convincingly awkward and pathetic in the film’s first third that you find yourself wondering when the real hero is going to show up. My reference to The Office earlier in this review is not a stretch… Wikus Van De Merwe is what Michael Scott would be if he processed aliens rather than sold paper. And choosing this character as the centerpiece of a gritty action film turns out to be a stroke of genius.

Wikus’ redemption makes up the central arc of District 9. He starts out casually dismissive of the Prawns’ rights — even laughing at the popping sound caused when their fetuses are set on fire — but ultimately comes to realize that he works for the real monsters. I won’t give away the details of his journey, but suffice it to say it’s a true transformation.

District 9 is the rare action film with real ideas behind the mayhem. The aliens-as-oppressed-minority angle is a fascinating one (even if it’s cribbed a bit from Alien Nation) and Blomkamp’s portrayal of the gritty conditions puts you on the front lines. And he deals in shades of grey… watching the Prawns savagely rip apart their meat and casually vandalize a car, it’s hard to sympathize with them. But when a more civilized Prawn, with the wonderful name of Christopher Johnson, shows signs of advanced intelligence, he’s easy to root for.

Despite these serious underpinnings, the best thing about District 9 is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s left to us. Blomkamp plays action scenes for both suspense and laughs, he revels in the damage done by alien weaponry, he milks the satire in interview scenes with one bureaucrat after another recounting the sordid tale. Against all odds, he makes this bloody political allegory fun.

Based on the opening weekend box office numbers, he’s hit a nerve. No doubt District 10 was greenlit hours after the first returns came in on Sunday. If he promises to craft that film with the same spirit that went into this one, I promise I’ll be lining up for a ticket.

2 thoughts on “District 9

  1. Amy says:

    I just loved this film. Dana often points out that the “foreign” element of any particular film (whether literally – it’s set in another country, or figuratively – it’s treading new ground) causes you (and us? and filmgoers in general?) to laud it more than we would its familiar counterpart. If so, so be it. Alien Nation or not, any of the other however many films Entertainment Weekly is comparing it to or not, this film does feel original because the ship is sitting over Johannesburg. I mean – COME ON. Usually in a film like Independence Day (well, of course that film :)), it’s all about the US of A, and we get a glimpse of the action in our neighboring nations. Here, the whole damn film takes place in one of those glimpses. I don’t recall a single moment in this film that even talks about the reaction of the rest of the world.

    Getting to experience this phenomenon through the eyes of South Africans, who have been directed with uncommon confidence by a fellow South African, makes the whole thing feel as much like a foreign art film as it does an action or science fiction film. The marriage worked wonders for me.

    And, as I’ve implied several times already on Facebook, I sure hope the financial results of this little experiment in Johannesburg (the film, not the alien relocation) causes the big studios to rethink the monstrous budget they give the Michael Bays of the world (well, at least that they give Michael Bay).

    I’ve read several reviews which compare the film to The Terminator because it has that sort of powerful effect on the viewer. When it ends, you just know you’ve entered what should be a new chapter in the movie business. Fingers crossed, Blomkamp doesn’t lose his way in the narrative.

  2. pegclifton says:

    Interesting review and comment, I have to give this some serious consideration.

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