Film review by: Witney Seibold
Who would have thought there was a way to make a film that was both a raucous sci-fi alien invasion action flick, and a damning portrait of racist apartheid politics in South Africa? As an action-adventure, “District 9” is effective and exciting. As a political metaphor, it’s actually pretty raw and convincing. I felt that the inevitable action climax undercut the seriousness and impact of the film’s central apartheid message, but I guess the filmmakers (it was produced by Peter Jackson, the man behind the overstuffed “Lord of the Rings” actioners) needed to keep the teen boys in their seats somehow, and explosions, missiles, and giant robot suits seem to do that well.
Directed by first-time-feature director Neill Blomkamp, “District 9,” is told as a documentary about Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the pencil-pusher who has been chosen, for politically oblique reasons, to head a massive move of Prawns from District 9 to District 10 a few miles away. What are Prawns, you may ask? Prawn is the derogatory term that humans have given to a race of seven-foot-tall grasshopper/shrimp-looking space aliens who became stranded on Earth nearly 20 years ago. These Prawns live in a shantytown, District 9, just outside of Johannesburg where their numbers have grown to over a million in the last decade. The Prawns’ mother ship still hangs ominously above the shantytown, unreachable by humans and aliens alike. What is keeping the massive, city-sized ship afloat is never made clear.
Indeed, a lot of the aliens’ backstory is left obscure. Where is their planet? Why did they come to Earth? Did they crash? All that is known is that when they arrived, they needed the aid of humans, and humans gave them the cutout rate exclusives.
The title seems to be an allusion to District 6, a near-identical shantytown in Cape Town where blacks were forced to live during apartheid, and were similarly relocated. The main character is named Van Der Merwe, which, as some internet research teaches me, is a common name amongst white Afrikaners, and the go-to name for a series of jokes.
The scenes of human/alien interaction are shot in an ultra-realistic fashion, and have some delightfully pragmatic notes of social culture shock between an alien species and the surround humans, much in the same way “Alien Nation” did back in 1988. The aliens are fond of cat food, so the local humans exploit them by chargins exorbitant prices for cans of it. A lot of the rhetoric is pretty much verbatim from a lot of racist doctrines.
When Wikus, during a giant crackdown which turns more violent than it needs to, discovers a vial of alien fluid, he is accidentally exposed, and becomes very sick. In the hospital, it is discovered that the fluid seems to be changing his body to match that of the aliens’, complete with a reptilian claw. This is not a fascinating view of alien disease like in “Star Trek,” though. This is a brutal and insensitive shuttling about of a man who is partially quarantined, and partially seen as a potential new weapon.
Eventually the documentary approach is abandoned in favor of a taut – though disappointingly pat – thriller involving chases and escapes and explosions. Wikus teams up with one of the aliens, and they form what passes as a friendship in a movie so bleak. It’s a pity that a film that started so strong and mysterious had to give us the usual action climax, but at least it’s a well-shot action climax (despite the constant use of blood splatting on the camera lens), and up until then, it’s the most realistic sci-fi conceits you may see.