District 9

A spectacular image from District 9

A spectacular image from District 9

(Tri-Star) Sharlto Copley, David James, Louis Minnaar, Vanessa Haywood, Kenneth Nkosi, Jason Cope, Mandla Gaduka, Nathalie Bollt, Sylvanie Strike, Greg Melvill-Smith, Marian Hooman, Johan van Schoor, Jed Brophy. Directed by Neill Blomkamp

There have been a number of scenarios in the movies regarding first contact with an alien race. In some cases it is a spectacular affair, with the pomp and ceremony befitting such a momentous occasion. In others, it is a terrifying event, where the destruction of our species is at stake. What actually happens is something nobody can honestly predict.

In this version, a gigantic spaceship enters our atmosphere and comes to a halt, hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. After a couple of weeks of standoff with no contact between humans and those aboard the spaceship, a United Nations team cut their way into their ship, only to encounter a horrifying sight; over a million starving aliens, huddling in abject misery in the bowels of the ship.

More than 20 years later, the aliens have been relocated to a ghetto in Johannesburg known as District 9 (an ironic nod to District 6, a district in Johannesburg during the apartheid era in which black Africans were allowed to own their own homes), which has become rampant with crime and violence. Nigerian gangsters run roughshod over the aliens, selling black market canned cat food (which is an intoxicant to the aliens) and supplying all manners of vice, including prostitutes for the creatures. Residents of neighboring townships have become fed up with the filth and crime which has spilled over into their neighborhoods. The Prawns, as the aliens are commonly known, have no conception of personal property and simply take whatever they see that attracts their attention.

The whole alien mess has been dumped into the hands of a corporate subcontractor called MNU, or Multi National United. They administer (loosely speaking) alien-human relations but what they really are is the second-largest weapons manufacturer in the world, and their interests lie in getting the Prawns’ superior arsenal of weapons to work, but they can’t – there is a bio-technological element that works with alien DNA only.

In the meantime, tensions have grown to the boiling point in the surrounding neighborhoods and rioting has become commonplace. Despite the outcry of humanitarian organizations, the decision is made to relocate the aliens to Sector 10, 240 kilometers outside of Johannesburg. Students of South African history may note the irony in that.

The management of the relocation process has fallen to Wikus van der Merwe (Copley), a low-level bureaucrat who it just so happens has married the daughter of the company’s vice-president, Piet Smit (Minnaar). Wikus is somewhat inept, a bit of a blowhard, lacking in moral fiber and utterly out of his depth. Nonetheless, he sets out about his duties with great enthusiasm, leading a team of MNU mercenaries, commanded by the ruthless Koobus Venter (James).

While ostensibly there to get the aliens’ “scrawl,” which for legal purposes is to acknowledge that they have been informed of their pending relocation, Wikus is also searching for caches of illegal weapons and technology forbidden to the aliens. In one shack, owned by an alien who has been given the human name of Christopher Thompson (voiced by Cope), he finds what seems to be a harmless metal cylinder. However, he manages to open it, accidentally spraying himself with a black liquid.

This innocuous act leads to devastating consequences for Wikus. He begins to change from the inside out and soon discovers to his horror that his left arm has changed into an alien one. He is abducted by MNU mercenaries who take him to a secret medical research facility where it is discovered that Wikus’ human DNA is transforming into alien DNA. He is now able to operate the alien weapons, much to the delight of the MNU executives. Unfortunately, in order to make this breakthrough of use, they are going to have to harvest Wikus’ mutated DNA – before he completely changes over. Unfortunately, the operation has a side effect – it will kill Wikus.

Director Blomkamp has previously worked mostly in the special effects field. He based this movie, which he co-wrote, on a short film he made called Alive in Joburg which in turn was inspired by his experiences growing up in the apartheid culture. He uses a quasi-documentary feel, with interview subjects and a narrator. Eventually, we grow to realize that the documentary isn’t about the alien relocation, it’s about Wikus and his role in the events portrayed on-screen.

Obviously, cultural and racial segregation is a theme here and the fact that the movie is located in Johannesburg is an irony that escapes only the thickest of viewers. Man’s inhumanity to man is nothing compared to man’s inhumanity to non-man. The depiction of atrocities and conditions in the slum are based on the filmmakers own experiences, as well as the conditions found currently in the slums of Johannesburg. In a further irony, the District 9 depicted here was an actual slum in which the inhabitants were slated to be moved to government housing elsewhere in the city. The shacks depicted here are actual residences (save for Christopher Thompson’s, which was the only one built for the film), down to the mutilated animal carcasses which were prevalent there.

The decision was made to go with unknowns in the cast and, much the same as in The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield works out nicely. They combine traditional narrative techniques along with the shaky hand-held first-person cameras that have become commonplace in the last few years, creating a heightened sense of realism.

It also must be said that the CGI here of the mothership and the aliens is pretty extraordinary. The aliens are truly revolting, resembling a cross between a lobster, a grasshopper and a crawfish. They are given expressive human eyes which convey everything from slightly unfocused incomprehension to near-tears. I don’t know that I wouldn’t feel a bit unnerved having these sorts of things living in my vicinity.

The cast does a solid job here, mostly in limited roles. Only Copley and James have extensive screen time and they make the most of it, James mostly as the sneering, psychotic villain. Copley is given a much more difficult part, and he does a surprisingly good job of it. Wikus is not a typical hero. He doesn’t always do the right thing and quite often, self-interest motivates his decisions. He is also hopelessly inept and one of those annoying people who think they know far more than they do. He has more in common with Inspector Clousseau than with Rambo. Still, for all his faults, you end up rooting for him, maybe because of all his faults.

As a sci-fi action movie, it’s satisfying. The alien weapons range from not very different than ours to “HOLY CRAP!!!” The aliens themselves are no E.T. They are the Mariel boat people of their species. The last 20 minutes of the movie is essentially a running battle between the MNU toadies and Wikus, using a kind of Prawn Terminator and there is body parts shooting off in all sorts of nasty directions, generally accompanied by a spray of gore and ichors. Perhaps scariest of all, however, are the Nigerian gangsters who are ignorant, savage and utterly without a shred of decency. In that sense they have far more in common with the corporate monsters than the non-human ones.

For a movie that has so much going on in terms of subtext, there isn’t a whole lot of exploration of that. In essence, the filmmakers lay out the facts and events that transpire and let you make of them what you will. In that sense, it isn’t unlike an actual documentary, something that was no doubt intentional on the part of the producers (who include Peter Jackson, by the by).

I enjoyed the Johannesburg setting; it’s neat to see a movie set somewhere you don’t get to see explored too often by mainstream American cinema. I only recall Tsotsi and Stander as being set there, although I’m sure there are plenty of others. There is some lovely cinematography showing the cityscapes dominated by the mothership, as well as shots of the squalid ghetto.

I liked this movie quite a lot. The filmmakers don’t waste a moment in this movie, which is something some veteran moviemakers can’t say. I doubt it’ll be remembered as a benchmark in sci-fi cinema, but nobody will leave the multiplex feeling disappointed. Mission accomplished!

REASONS TO GO: The faux-documentary style creates a heightened sense of realism. Excellent CGI, believable aliens, impressive weapons and some very nice action sequences make this a nice little thrill ride.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a bit hard to understand. There are some truly stomach-churning moments for those who are sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and truly loathsome aliens who may cause some nightmares for the wee crowd. There’s also a good deal of crude language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharlto Copley is not a professional actor, nor has he any plans to continue pursuing a career in the field; all of his lines are ad-libbed.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the shots of the mothership hovering over Johannesburg are best appreciated on the big screen.


TOMORROW: The Time Traveller’s Wife


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