Director: Neill Blomkamp
In 1982, an alien vessel stops over Johannesburg. The malnourished aliens on board are rescued and soon placed into a government camp named District 9, which quickly becomes a slum. In the present day, Multi National United, a private military contractor starts the process of relocating the “prawns” (as they’re called) to the new District 10, outside of the city. The operation is led by Wikus van der Merwe, the son in the law of the head of MNU, who starts evicting the aliens. At one shack he finds a cylinder that sprays him with an unknown liquid. Wikus falls ill. At this hospital it becomes clear he’s mutating into an alien. MNU take him into custody, intending to experiment on him but he escapes.
Wikus returns to District 9, to the shack of “Christopher”, where he found the cylinder. This liquid was intended to power the dormant vessel. Christopher offers to reverse Wikus’s transformation if he retrieves the cylinder. Wikus attempts to purchase alien weapons from Nigerian gangsters, who want his arm, believing they’ll be able to gain his powers from eating it. Wikus steals weapons, and both he and Christopher break into MNU, retrieving the cylinder. When Christopher tells Wikus he has to return home before turning him back, Wikus knocks him out and attempts to power the vessel himself. The Nigerians hijack MNU when they capture Wikus and Christopher. Christopher’s son activates a powersuit that allows Wikus to save himself against both the Nigerians and MNU. Wikus allows Christopher to return to the vessel and go home. The aliens are moved to District 10, where it’s suggested we see Wikus, fully transformed into a “prawn”.
The debut film from a South African film maker widely known already for his work in advertising (you’ll have seen his Citroen advert with a car that turns into a dancing robot!) came about rather fortuitously. Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, had been impressed by his previous work, including the short ‘Alive in Joburg’ (2005) and had arranged for Blomkamp to work on a film version of the Halo videogame’. When funding collapsed, Blomkamp returned to his earlier short, to turn in into a full length feature. In hindsight, it was a very wise decision. ‘Alive in Joburg’, which can be seen on Youtube is a six minute short that features the rough synopsis of ‘District 9’, but with the freedoms of a two hour running time and a large budget (though nothing like as large as most Hollywood action films – $30m approximately), Blomkamp has been able to tackle serious subject matters, whilst making a film that appeals to a mainstream filmgoing audience.
Blomkamp’s film hasn’t been acclaimed as a particularly inventive action film because of the technical bravura, although how he gets so much of a comparatively tight budget is certainly impressive, but moreover, because of its sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle allusions to South African history and general philosophies about humanity. It doesn’t require the audience to be an expert on apartheid to understand what Blomkamp is probably referring to. Confined to shanty towns, discriminated against, facing prejudice at every corner – we recognise these as symptoms of apartheid. As is the case in an increasing number of “alien”-themed films (Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’ springs to mind), it’s the “aliens”, not the humans with whom we sympathise. It’s the “aliens” who demonstrate the most obvious “human” characteristics. What humanitarian impulse began the settlement of the aliens in District 9 quickly descended into outright hostility and fearmongering. Sure, we expect politicians and military personnel here to be devious and selfish, but mild mannered bureaucrats like Wikus think nothing of illegally evicting aliens and issuing the use of violence with little motivation.
The transformation of Wikus from human to “prawn”, which seems influenced by Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ (1987), isn’t just a physical metamorphosis, but also a mental and emotional change. From changing from a human, he somehow becomes more human. The effects of his actions as a civil servant become more apparent – he sees the experiments that MNU undertake on “prawns” first hand. He experiences discrimination and prejudice for this first hand – note the rumours peddled about how his change happened (sexual intercourse with a “prawn”). The one significant relationship within the film is between an alien named Christopher Johnson, an intelligent and articulate alien who knows his rights and that the eviction of his community has no legal basis, and his young son, who plot to rescue their species. Compare this at least with the relationship between Wikus and his father in law, Piet Smit, who has nothing but contempt for him, is complicit with his taking into custody and lies to his own daughter about what’s happened to Wikus. Mid-transformation, Wikus recovers his humanity and selflessness, risking his own life to ensure that Christopher and son can return home. Even with the final scene that shows a fully transformed Wikus, who may never return to human state, carving a flower from a can and leaving it on his wife’s doorstep, this never feels cloying or overly sentimental, but poignant and moving.
Not that there aren’t issues with the film. In its final third, it often feels as though Blomkamp realised there was a significant part of the budget left and the film begins to descend into one massive shootout between Wikus/Christopher and the MNU mercenaries, led by the almost psychotic Venter. For a film that wears its anti-discrimination, anti-prejudice credentials firmly on its sleeve, the characterisation of the Nigerian gangsters sails a little close to the wind, as they seem to merely fit crude stereotypes. These are minor quibbles though that shouldn’t detract from the otherwise impressive nature of this film. It’s a superior, intelligent action film, with a fine, nuanced central performance by Sharlto Copley, who actually doesn’t act all that frequently. Blomkamp nicely switches between faux-documentary of Wikus’s attempts to evict the aliens (filmed for state television) and more conventional film making once he begins to change and the CGI overseen by the director and presumably Jackson gives the film its epic feel. After the superb box office returns already in the US and worldwide, a sequel is probably inevitable. Blomkamp ends his film tentatively, on something of an anti-climax that suggests this chapter isn’t closed. With Jackson’s patronage, he ought to keep his feet on the ground and choose his subsequent projects wisely.