The aliens arrived almost thirty years ago, their crippled spacecraft hovering to a halt over Johannesburg, where it remains hovering over the city. That defining image hovers over the entirety of District 9, a savagely whipsmart satire of first contact with an alien species reduced to repressed immigrant population from first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson. What should be an ominous and amazing transport from another world is neither threat nor utopian promise, merely an annoyance to the local human population that can’t look to the sky without seeing that reminder of their unwanted subculture.
If the mere premise, and the Blomkamp’s brilliantly realized execution of it, is reason enough for you to see this film, then read no further. Go with the confidence that the rest of the film delivers on that promise and allow the story to unfold with no further expectations. If you need to know more, then read on…
District 9 opens in familiar mock documentary form: a brief history of alien arrival, the rescue of a helpless population from a disabled craft, the failed attempts to crack the DNA-enabled alien technology (specifically energy-blasting weapons that could makes billions for the lucky arms industry that finally harnesses it) and the increasing public hostility toward the stranded race that has been reduced to scavengers, scurrying about their dump of a slum prison and occasionally going outside to grab what they can from the urban world. The aliens, human-sized bipeds that speak in a language of clicks and pops and look like a cross between insect and crustacean, would appear scary were they not so pathetic and desperate. These “prawns” (a racist – or is that specist? – slur that has become common usage) are clearly not human, and that has made it so much easier to treat them as animals at best and pests at worst.
You can’t miss the parallels between these shantytown slums and apartheid South Africa from mere decades before, but that’s the least of Neill Blomkamp’s ideas. Segregated from the human population in a veritable internment camp surrounded by cyclone fences and barbed wire, they are all but ruled by gun-toting gangs with a stranglehold on the black market economy, which are apparently tolerated by the Department of Alien Affairs as long as they keep their predations limited to this underclass. Now there’s a forced relocation in the works, moving them even farther from human civilization (out of sight, out of mind), and the project has been outsourced to MNU, or MultiNational United. Behind the blandly ominous name is an international weapons manufacturer and private army that makes Blackwater look like a charitable foundation. They’re less a contract police force than concentration camp guards in an unsupervised environment. In this social culture, alien victims of their violence become research subjects; running the relocation project is a perfect synergistic companion to its alien weapons research.
What could be an unbearably bleak and cynical portrait becomes a ferociously entertaining piece of science fiction thriller in the hands of co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp, who frames the story through the bumbling obliviousness of amiable idiot civil servant Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a grinning administrative functionary put in charge of the relocation. Promoted far beyond his pay scale and his abilities thanks to nepotism and an unspoken sense of expediency (his politician father-in-law is rather cozy with MNU), the easily intimidated Wikus wants to be everybody’s friend and poses no threat to their outlaw tactics. It’s all fun and games for Vikus, who is happy to play the man in charge for the camera crews, displaying his ignorance and lack of training with a comical South African good ol’ boy chumminess that, predictably, bites him in the ass—or, more precisely, the arm—with life-altering results.
Along with all of this is a story of alien resistance, an action-movie manhunt, an urban crime thriller, a buddy movie, a convincingly inhuman conspiracy, even an increasingly touching love story, all of it swirled together in a science fiction tale set against the dusty landscape of a desert shantytown slum and punctuated with all the alien bug imagery and splattery explosions of human bodies blown apart by alien energy cannons that a genre junkie could want. It’s not hard to see what sparked producer Peter Jackson to the film. Though his participation is limited to sponsoring a first-time director’s ambition and offering his own Weta Workshop to provide the grungy, hyper-real special effects, you can see the affinities with Jackson’s pre-Lord of the Rings work.
Shot on location in and around Johannesburg (apart from some studio shooting in Jackson’s New Zealand home base) with a local South African cast, there’s not a familiar face in sight, which not only helps sell the docutexture but denies all character expectations. And Blomkamp is not wedded to the mock-doc style and shifts to traditional narrative storytelling to follow the story of an alien activist (named Christopher, a wonderfully incongruous touch that reminds us how their very identities have been redefined by their human hosts-turned-overseers) and his son, whose destinies get tangled with Vikus. If the film falters, it’s in the underdeveloped personalities of these aliens.
Funny and ferocious, cynical and satirical, District 9 is both ingeniously clever and smartly thoughtful, a science fiction thriller that bubbles to social commentary. Almost every element reverberates with painful satire—national security outsourced to a private army, social policy designed by a multinational corporation, the complicated cultural interface of a forced (and illegal) relocation run by a criminally underqualified civil servant whose promotion is a matter of connections—but it’s all in the details. Blomkamp never pauses lecture; he keeps his focus on cleverly constructed narrative that takes off as a runaway adventure while catching us up in the unexpectedly compelling personal story of a man who discovers a resilience and courage and, ultimately, a humanity only when that humanity is at stake.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp; written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; featuring Sharlto Copley, David James. Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. 113 minutes.