Wow. That was the first word out of my mouth when this astonishing, intense hard sci-fi exploration on prejudice and apartheid ended. Director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson have crafted a fascinating film that, while flawed, is a significant new addition to the ranks of serious science fiction movies, along with Alien, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and the like.
Bookended with opening and closing documentary-style footage, District 9 posits a race of extraterrestrials having their interstellar craft mysteriously break down over Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1980s. After weeks of indecision, humans force their way into the ship, just to find the aliens weakened and dying of hunger. They’re rescued, but they’re sufficiently different that they are forced to live in terrible slums and suffer the ridicule and abuse of mankind.
Almost thirty years have passed since then and the aliens, known derogatorily as “prawns”, 1.8 million of them, are still trapped in “District 9″, a slum on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Problem is, the aliens wander off their fenced security area and incidents between humans and “prawns” are increasing, and humans are getting killed.
As a result, it’s decided that the aliens need to be relocated to a new fenced-in village “District 10″ that’s further from the city and Blackwater-like military contractor Multi-National United (MNU) is hired to do the job. To keep it all “legal”, however, they are required to serve ‘eviction notices to the current residents of District 9, led by MNU agent Wikus van der Merwe (very well played by Sharlto Copley).
Problem is, it doesn’t exactly go as planned…
The treatment of the aliens by humans is shocking in this movie, they’re treated as the lowest scum who have no feelings, no social structure and no motivation. At one point it’s explained that they’re “workers” and lack a leader, but many times I winced as a human would kick, punch or otherwise hurt a “prawn”. It’s supposed to be shocking, of course, and indeed, the point of the film is to explore how humans can torment and be so monstrous to each other.
Is it effective? As I write this review, I find myself averse to referring to the aliens as “prawns”, so, yeah, it worked for me, at least.
Lackluster bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe starts out as a complete dork, fumbling the microphone when he’s interviewed about the relocation project, then trying unsuccessfully to face down Koobus Venter (David James), the tough military commander of the relocation effort. As the film progresses, though, he finds that he’s slowly becoming sympathetic to the aliens and begins to understand their plight and assist them in their attempts to finally leave the Earth.
The South African setting is perfect for the film in many ways, not the least of which is the country’s own history of apartheid and racial tension, that’s both mirrored other parts of Africa and demonstrated that effort and desire can unite a people split apart, can create a powerful nation where there were a dozen different local tribes and foreign invaders. In addition, the Afrikaans and almost-English South African accents and actors make for a film that does feel foreign, particularly when compared to the oft-banal product of the Hollywood machine.
At its heart, though, District 9 is not a preachy documentary about the ills of apartheid but an intense action film with numerous sequences of violence, aggression and special effects throughout that were so good that not once during the film did I even question the basic premise of the film. The aliens always look alien, scary and disturbing, even as they spoke in clicks and whistles (subtitled in English for us humans) and dripped mysterious liquids from their strange carapaces.
Speaking of the language, the aliens understand English, though they only speak their own strange language, and the humans understand the alien language. That probably sounds a bit odd, but in the film it just works, and again, I never questioned how they could possibly understand each other when they conversed.
The District 9 compound isn’t just the alien “prawns”, however. There are also gangs of Nigerians selling the aliens the highly-treasured cat food they relish and trading alien weapons for freshly slaughtered meat of questionable origin. The alien weaponry, however, is a bit of a bust: it only appears to work for the aliens themselves, and no human can fire any of them. The Nigerians solution? To eat alien body parts in the hope that they’ll somehow gain some of the precious alien DNA and then be able to gain the ability to shoot these clearly powerful weapons.
There’s also a lot of gore in the film once it moves into its second act. The alien weapons are definitely not “clean, surgical strike” devices and it was with the satisfaction of a well-done scene in a horror film that I watched many of the subsequent scenes in District 9. I can’t over-emphasize that even in the bloodiest scenes how well assembled this movie actually is. The special effects are flawless, the visual feel of the faux documentary work perfectly, and while it’s an intense experience, it’s also an amazing one.
The supporting cast is good, albeit perhaps too many of them served more as stereotypes than actual fully-fleshed-out characters in the film, notably Wikus’s wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood) and her duplicious father Piet Smith (Louis Minnaar).
Early in the film, the relationship between the white Wikus and his black NMU associate made me uncomfortable: there was a lack of respect that was a perfect foreshadowing for the main theme of the film, about xenophobia and how people seem to naturally gravitate to fear and hate when faced with something new and different.
There are so many great scenes later in the film that I want to write about, but I also have tried mightly to avoid spoiling this cool film for you, dear reader. Blomkamp and especially composer Clinton Shorter and cinematographer Trent Opaloch have created an amazing, tough and exciting film that operates both as a treatise on race relations and a thrilling action film.
Just go see it. But don’t take your kids.