Reviewed by Gary Pollard (first aired on RTHK Radio 4’s “Morning Call”)
In “District 9”, man’s first encounter with extraterrestrial life is neither as spectacular nor as threatening as it’s been shown in most movies. Twenty-eight years ago, a huge alien spacecraft appeared in the sky over Johannesburg. And stayed there. It emitted no sound. No creature made an effort to contact the human race. It just hovered there for months.
Eventually humans decide to fly up to the ship and cut their way in. What they find is a dark, dank, and filthy ship filled with millions of starving, sick aliens. The aliens are insect-like beings that walk on two legs, and have crustacean-like skins and tentacled mouths. Human beings give them the derogatory name “prawns”.
It appears the alien ship has come to Earth, and then broken down. According to one scientist who s being interviewed, after the ship’s arrival something detached from it and fell to Earth. Despite a search, it has not been found.
Mankind treats them as it does many refugee populations, settling them into a temporary housing area, the so-called “District 9”, where they are restored to health. Over time though, as world governments cannot decide what to do with them, the temporary housing becomes permanent. District 9 becomes a slum, its inhabitants taking on the characteristics of the disenfranchised everywhere, falling into alcoholism, addiction, and gang culture. South Africans of all races think of them with suspicion, occasional empathy, and, mostly, xenophobic hostility.
We’re told all this in the first fifteen minutes or so of Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9”. It’s shot in the manner of a television documentary, using clips from a corporate video about a private company called MNU, or Multi-National United, archive footage from assorted news organizations, and interviews with scientists, human rights activists, and people on the street. MNU is the company that’s been given the job of looking after the alien refugee population. It also has ulterior motives. The aliens brought weapons with them. However, they are coded to work only with the DNA of the extraterrestrials. Human beings can’t fire them. MNU is conducting experiments to work out how to make those weapons usable by man.
Meanwhile, some human groups move into the camp to profiteer off the aliens, and to collect their weapons, including a gang of Nigerians that is also determined to make those weapons work. They’re Nigerians are led by a warlord-like figure Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) who buys the weapons with cans of cat food, which the aliens consider a delicacy. They also kill the occasional extraterrestrial. The gang also believes that by eating the creatures they will gain their power and be able to use the weaponry.
In the opening interviews, we are introduced to Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) whose father-in-law (Louis Minnaar) is the head of the company. Nepotistically, Wikus has been put in charge of the transfer of aliens to the even more remote District 10. Blomkamp has based this on the forced removal of over 60,000 non-white inhabitants from District Six to the Cape Flats township during the 1970s by South Africa’s apartheid regime.
In a segment that looks like an episode of the US television series “Cops” Wikus and a team go from door-to-door in District 9 serving eviction notices. None of them cares whether the aliens understand the notices. They just have to get their scrawl on them so the eviction process has at least a semblance of legality.
Wikus is a little friendlier with the aliens than most of the other operatives, even if patronising. He still uses the terms “prawns” though, and clearly regards them as subhuman. In one hovel he finds a cache of weapons. In another, a cluster of alien eggs. The creatures are not allowed to breed without a permit, so Wikus calls in a team to destroy the shack with a flame-thrower. As it burns, he cheerfully compares the popping sound the eggs make with the sound of baking popcorn.
As he continues to serve the notices and search the homes, Wikus accidentally ingests a black liquid the aliens have collected. Within hours, it begins altering his DNA so he is starts to take on alien characteristics. His fingernails drop off. His teeth fall out.
Soon he is wanted by MNU, as well as by the Nigerians. It seems he can fire the weapons that human beings have wanted to get their hands on for so long.
Increasingly an outcast from the human world, Wikus has to become part of the alien one. He teams up with a “prawn” that humans have named Christopher Johnson (voiced by Jason Cope), and his child, “Little CJ”. He wants a way to reverse his alien metamorphosis; they want to get their spaceship working and return to their planet.
It may seem from this outline that the allegory in “District 9” is a little too obvious. Clearly it’s about apartheid. But the script by Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell goes far beyond that. “District 9” is an expansion of a six-minute short “Alive in Joburg” that Blomkamp made in 2005, and like that earlier film it’s not interested in exploiting the aliens for cheap scares. It’s much more about reflecting our own xenophobia.
Horror and sci-fi fans will see many elements from other movies and TV programmes here, including the BBC’s 1950s “Quatermass” stories, “The X-files”, and even “ET”. Its pseudo-documentary style mixes humour, grisly news reportage, horrific scientific experiment, and even – eventually – a Transformers-like fight sequence. If one has a criticism of it, it may be that towards the end it becomes a more formulaic action movie, but by this point you do not care. Blomkamp has set up the situation with such intelligence and integrity, and got you so hooked on the characters, including the aliens, that you are highly invested in the outcome of that action.
The film’s special effects are among the best I’ve seen. The way the spaceship hovers above Johannesburg, partly obscured by heat haze and pollution, often seen shakily through hand-held cameras, makes it entirely real. The aliens are mostly computer-generated, and yet you come to believe in them fully as characters. One of the most impressive things is that, as superb as they are, you stop wondering at the special effects as the story progresses because they are secondary to it, not driving it.
Sharito Copley isn’t an actor most of us will know, but he makes Wikus a flawed and initially sometimes despicable human being whom we nevertheless end up supporting. By the end, as he has externally become less human, he has begun to represent what is best about humanity rather than what’s worst.
Made on a smallish budget “District 9”, produced by Peter Jackson after his “Halo” project fell through, is the blockbuster movie of the summer, and proof – above all – that the blockbuster can be sharp, intelligent, and even have much of value to say about the human condition. It’s one of the best science fiction films for a long time. It’s one of the best movies of any kind for a long time.