“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”
In 2006, then-unknown South African director Neill Blomkamp made a short film, Alive in Joburg. He was then signed to direct an ill-fated Halo adaptation and, when this project collapsed, Peter Jackson offered Blomkamp $30 000 000 to direct whatever he wanted. District 9, based on the aforementioned short, is the result.
By today’s standards, thirty million is a relatively small budget, particularly considering the grand scale and special effects required for Blomkamp’s science-fiction tale. District 9 feels like a small film, oddly enough; more reminiscent in tone to the likes of recent sci-fi output like Moon and Monsters than, for example, Avatar. Yet this is more because of its social commentary and political subtext than muted action or weak design – visually, the effects are such that, despite the physical impossibility of the alien refugees being people in creature suits, it is still a surprise to learn they were not, while a recurring image of the alien vessel floating, stationary above the city is understated and truly beautiful, and there is little indication as to its “meagre” cost.
Shot in documentary style (at the beginning at least), we are told that, some twenty years ago an alien ship came to a halt above Johannesburg. Contact eventually revealed its inhabitants to be malnourished and disorganised – hardly capable of providing the celestial enlightenment the human race was expecting. Due to public pressure, the aliens, dismissively referred to as “prawns” due to both their appearance and their percieved inferiority, were relocated in a camp/slum outside the city where the aliens were consigned, without rights, indefinitely.
Having been informed of the situation’s history, District 9 introduces its protagonist – Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a newly assigned head of MNU, a private security firm tasked with the relocation of 1.8million prawns to a new location, away from the increasingly disgruntled human population of Johannesburg. Wikus is a dislikeable simpleton, a dim-witted pencil pusher – he tries to impress too much, he’s incompetent and, much like the bullish men he works with, is not only blatant in his belief as to his superiority over the prawns, but goes about his duty with sadistic glee: an early scene shows his and his colleagues’ delight in destroying an alien’s reproductive apparatus, complete with unhatched offspring. Yet his ignorance, and arrogance, leads him to accidentally ingest a fluid that contaminates him, leading him to begin mutating into one of the prawns. Consequently, he begins to understand the true intentions of both MNU and the government, who are more interested in the aliens’ weaponry than in humanitarian relief.
Like the best science-fiction films, District 9‘s events are rooted in real social events; its story is based on Blomkamp’s experience of apartheid, xenophobia and subjugation in South Africa. It offers a damning indictment of humanity, from the deep-seated racism on the streets to the callous cruelty and desire for power and profit among politicians and multi-national corporations. It is no doubt deliberate that, when war does break out, it is between different human factions, not between humans and aliens. The former’s greed is such that, despite seeing the prawns as a nuisance, they do not enable them with any rights or control that might allow them to return home. Instead, the humans exploit the aliens, plying them with cat food in exchange for a daunting collection of weapons; there is no suggestion that any kind of mutually beneficial agreement or understanding was even attempted when the aliens first arrived. Yet, while Blomkamp’s message is never far from view, it never overwhelms the narrative and is delivered cleverly; it never feels forced or overly preachy – unlike the heavy-handed simplicity of, for example, Avatar‘s environmental warning, here the social commentary is perfectly rooted within the plot and emerges from it organically.
If there is a flaw in District 9, it is Blomkamp’s uneven style. The documentary filmmaking so prominent in the film’s early scenes – newsreel footage, interviews direct to camera spoken by a number of academics and sociologists – is abandoned quickly. This is necessary due to the narrative’s demands, but does damage the film’s overall coherence, particularly when we are suddenly reminded of the retrospective documentary style through jarring voice-overs ruminating on the events occurring on screen. Yet it is also a testament to Blomkamp’s screenplay that this is not more distracting; while it is an issue, it does little to detract from the film’s overall success.
As Wikus, Copley is superb. The initially pathetic, slimy bureaucrat transforms before our eyes – not just physically, but emotionally, and it is entirely believable throughout. He quickly becomes an unlikely hero, and it is difficult not to empathise with him. As the main human character, his performance comes to the fore, but it is important to not downplay the prawns themselves, namely Christopher, with whom Wikus forms an alliance. Although entirely a CGI creation, the special effects here serve the character, rather than the other way around and, while District 9‘s effects may lack the polished sheen of bigger budget productions, it is far easier to accept Christopher and his son as “real” than many other computer animated beings (I cannot help but return to Avatar, with its bland, two-dimensional stereotypes).
No doubt benefiting from Jackson’s involvement, District 9 became not only a sleeper hit with unanimous critical acclaim, but went head to head against James Cameron’s record-breaking sci-fi smash Avatar at the Oscars, with both nominated for Best Picture. Neither won (that accolade went to The Hurt Locker) but, if one had, it would surely have been Blomkamp’s film that deserved it more. It is brutal and unflinching in both its point and its delivery – the war sequences and effects of alien weaponry, not to mention Wikus’ mutation, are grotesque and uncompromising. It is a fine example of contemporary science-fiction, a film that recognises simply providing spectacle is not enough for more discerning audiences; unlike some recent, empty big-budget productions, District 9 matches its effects with thought-provoking insight and is far more memorable, interesting, and entertaining as a result.