by NIR SHALEV
What can I say that has not already been said about District 9? This film is truly magnificent in its scope, vision, messages, and overall energy.
South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp was originally slated to direct the highly anticipated Halo movie, based on the popular video game series but when that project fell through, director/producer Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) gave Blomkamp $30 million and artistic carte blanche to “direct whatever he wants.”
Blomkamp shot a short film in 2005 called Alive in Joburg about a spaceship that hovered over Johannesburg before its alien crew emigrated to Earth and decided to live there in slum conditions. Blomkamp decided to expand his vision of apartheid shown through the metaphor of inter-species hatred and District 9 is Alive in Joburg’s evolution.
The story begins with first contact occurring in 1982. A spaceship the width of a city enters Earth’s atmosphere and hovers over Johannesburg for 3 months. When the MNU (Multi-National United) grows tired of a lack of communication they force their way into the alien ship; within it are starving, destitute prawn-like aliens. They are eventually given access to Earth’s land and facilities. Fast-forward 29 years and the (now-known-as) Prawns live in a humongous slum known as District 9. A desk-jockey named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tasked with relocating the 1.8 million Prawns, via mass exodus and legal forms, 240 kilometers outside of Johannesburg; obviously no one wants them there anymore.
Blomkamp’s childhood memories of Johannesburg are re-imagined in sequences of apartheid-like movements, Nigerians feasting on Prawns in order to extract their essence, and of course government conspiracies. The MNU is basically the UN but with lots more guns and a strong intent to use them. As a matter of fact, the MNU is the second-largest weapons manufacturer in the world, which in the film’s alterna-Earth means complete freedom to do whatever it wants and to whom. Red tape is thrown around with ease, but we get the sense that the military doesn’t care if a few Prawns are murdered on a daily basis.
An unlikely hero emerges between the first and second acts. As Wikus bangs on several doors, subpoenaing Prawns with eviction notices he finds a metal vial in the house of a Prawn named Christopher. He presses a button and a clear liquid sprays onto his face. From that moment on the film chronicles the effects of Wikus’s exposure to the toxin that causes his DNA to merge with that of a Prawn. Turned into a guinea pig and tortured by the MNU, Wikus escapes their headquarters and goes on the run, hiding within District 9 and seeking weapons to protect himself from his former employers.
The story-arc develops in a very unlikely way and to a very unlikely person. When we meet Wikus we’re astounded to find a desk-jockey who is remarkably incompetent at inter-personal relations and we are wondering why this man was chosen for the job; he’s truly a monster yet entirely unaware of it. But as his character develops he realizes that what he had inflicted on others mere hours back is now being inflicted upon him. And the pain is felt two-fold because he is a white male and not a Prawn. It’s as if he was literally changing into a Prawn and no one recognizes him as a human anymore. I was strangely reminded of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
District 9 is shot like a documentary. If it wasn’t for the Prawns and the gunfights involving alien technology it could pass for a real documentary centering on racist regimes and hate crimes. The faux documentary approach de-familiarizes the familiar territory of xenophobia. The film’s vision of a possible future draws on South Africa’s ugly history to make a larger point about today’s human society. If Blomkamp was American the aliens would have been enslaved in some southern state; if he was European they would have been kicked around from country to country In Western Europe.
The special effects never fuel the story; they simply remain in the background and support the characters and situations. And kudos to the CGI department. Almost every Prawn in the film is, astonishingly, computer generated and a large amount of physics is applied to the action sequences, give or take a few members of the MNU that explode when zapped with alien technology. The idea is science fictional, the execution is harrowingly real. In fact, everything in the film looks remarkably real, even the Prawns’ walk cycles.
The performances are raw and emotional. Sharlto Copley is a first-time actor who was talked into the role by Blomkamp himself. As a first timer he is excellent as Wikus because the emotions that the character goes through are fully realized through his natural abilities. On that point I am reminded of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), in which Lamberto Maggiorani (the father) and Enzo Staiola (the son) play their parts to the tee. They were familiar with the destitution found in post-war Italy and de Sica’s neo-realist vision amplified their raw performances into natural performances that are remembered to this day. I’m not saying that Sharlto Copley is the Next Big Thing but simply that Wikus will remain in our thoughts for a long time after the film is over.
If there’s anything to complain about it’s that the film has so much to offer that even two viewings may not be enough. Walking out of the theater we don’t feel that something is missing, rather we feel that there’s so much going on outside of the plot that we must see the film again and experience it through another of the several perspectives that are offered to us. We can follow Wikus’ uprising, we can follow the three-act structure of the main narrative, or we can follow Christopher, the red shirted Prawn and his little, yellow shirt wearing baby son. They may be hideous-looking aliens but they show emotions just like Wikus does, and we end up caring for them a whole lot.