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District 9

Monday, September 7th, 2009 4:43 pm—Film

District 9 (USA/New Zealand 2009, Action/Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller), Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell; Director: Neill Blomkamp

It’s interesting (encouraging, even?) that this review comes immediately after my review of Moon. Both District 9 and Moon are daring, inventive sci-fi films that are more focused on character development and exploration, and on social commentary, than simply blowing things up. District 9 also manages to fit in some pretty impressive visual effects, and is much more action-packed than Moon. But action or not, these are both definitely the kinds of sci-fi flicks that catch my attention. Hopefully they’re indicative of a more intelligent, thought-provoking breed of the genre, and not just a summer fluke!

District 9 opens with a documentary-style backgrounder on the past 20 years, starting in 1990 when an alien mothership arrived over Johannesburg. Unable to return to their home planet because of technological difficulties with the spacecraft, the aliens are forced to make Earth their new home. The people of Johannesburg react with fear, and it isn’t long before the government has the aliens fenced off and living like third class citizens—complete with tin roof shacks and heaps of trash littering their slums, and a pejorative nickname (“prawns”) that reinforces just how unwelcome they are by human society.

Now, in present day, the government has handed over control of the aliens to a private corporation called Multi-National United (MNU) that has decided the best course of action is to move the million+ aliens 200kms outside of Johannesburg. The evictions are being handled by Afrikaner Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley, in an outstanding performance). Wikus is an ignorant and racist bureaucrat who thinks it’s funny to listen to the popping sounds the alien pods make as he burns the babies alive. He has no sympathy for prawns, as he calls them, until he is exposed to an alien substance that alters his DNA and begins to turn him into one of the dreaded creatures.

At this point, the film—which brilliantly blends documentary-style news footage, corporate interviews and traditional narrative—focuses more on conventional storytelling and delves into the relationship between Wikus and an alien who goes by the name Christopher Johnson. Christopher is evidently the most intelligent of the aliens, and has been secretly building a means to escape beneath his shanty house. The eviction means he will have to give up his plans, which were nearly complete. And so he is forced to work with Wikus so that they may both have a chance at survival.

I recently had a conversation about District 9 with my favourite film critic, TS. He says he loved the film for the exact opposite reason he hated The Dark Knight (see The Dark Knight review from August 2008). While the Batman installment features characters whose actions range from questionable to implausible, District 9 presents a totally believable version of how humanity would react in the presence of alien creatures who have something we want (in this case, superior technology).

I agree with TS (except for the part about hating The Dark Knight), but would go further and say that, of the sci-films I’ve seen, I’ve never been more convinced that what unfolds actually could happen, and that the aliens truly could exist, than I was by District 9. Blomkamp uses aliens from outerspace to reflect how unwelcoming—and fearful—humans tend to be of all aliens. Setting District 9 in South Africa draws immediate parallels to forced relocations and discrimination that have occurred throughout history—both recent and relatively distant. The fact that the director grew up in Johannesburg brings added weight, depth and sincerity to the story.

More than just painting a powerful and convincing depiction of what can—and does—go wrong when people give in to fear and greed, Blomkamp also manages to do a beautiful job of bringing the aliens to life. When Christopher Johnson explains to his young son how many moons they have on their planet, I utterly believed that their world was real and waiting for them somewhere else. Their history and backstory somehow comes alive throughout the course of District 9. The aliens are treated with respect by the filmmakers, if not by any of the other characters.

Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings, Heavenly Creatures) is one of the producers behind District 9. But the one truly visionary voice that rings throughout is Blomkamp’s. The film is an amazing feat in and of itself, but when you consider that this is the feature film debut from a 29-year-old, it’s all the more incredible. The South African born filmmaker has a background in animation, and first got noticed when he directed a series of live-action shorts promoting the video game Halo 3. (I’m not going to pretend to know anything about Halo… although I do kind of like the new Beyoncé song.) Based on the success of his shorts, Blomkamp was slated to direct the feature film version of Halo. But when it fell through, producer Jackson decided to help Blomkamp bring another of his shorts to life as a feature—the 2005 movie Alive in Joburg, on which District 9 is based.

I really liked this movie. Yes, some of the content is mildly derivative—there are echoes of The Fly, among other films. But it’s technically awesome, and is open-ended in a wonderful way that makes you question the consequences of our behaviour and wonder what’s in store for us all.

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