Director: Neill Blomkamp; Starring: Sharlto Copley;
FOR its opening half an hour, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a bleakly realistic and shamefully familiar tale of organised prejudice and man’s intolerance of minorities. It depicts in startling documentary footage, interspersed with eye-witness and expert testimony, the government-sponsored dissolution of a fetid ghetto on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a vast shanty town of shacks and tents and squalor housing more than a million displaced creatures.
Blomkamp grew up in apartheid-era South Africa and his personal recollections drive the film. The immigrants he presents are forced to forage in heaps of waste for their sustenance, to live on hand-outs of cat food, or else purchase contraband meat on the black market. Despite once being beckoned into the city, they are now considered a pestilence and resentments grow among the “legitimate” residents of Johannesburg. Hence the desire to shift them, hence a Government official named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) dispatched with a party of heavies to evict
them, hence this film detailing these thankless endeavours. Hence, the consequences.
The twist – and it is fairly notable – is that this minority, these immigrants, are literally not of this world. In the film’s parallel reality, a gigantic spaceship appeared above the city in 1983, surprising observers by its choice of Johannesburg rather than, say, Manhattan, but then proceeding to do nothing but hover and cast a shadow across the landscape for more than three years. Humans eventually overcame their delight at not being instantly death-rayed but then could not contain their curiosity. Probes sent up to cut into the ship discovered the population of malnourished aliens and an inversion of tradition: they became man’s responsibility rather than their foes.
District 9, then, is an alien movie. True, it’s an artfully rendered, multi-layered and intelligent alien movie, but it’s an alien movie nonetheless – and that means aliens. The principal tip-off for an audience comes with the words “PETER JACKSON presents” in the opening credits, and that is also our reassurance that our visitors from the planet CGI will be nothing like we have seen before.
The label “prawns” is derogatorily applied to the creatures, apparently owing to their resemblance to a species of giant African stick insect, but they are also not dissimilar to an upright version of the crustacean. But there is something human about them too.
The prawns are evidently intelligent (they have, after all, mastered intergalactic travel) and they care for their children in a human fashion, as well as sharing a love for sport and for guns. Van De Merwe asks for their signature, or tentacle print, on their eviction papers as if required of a lawful operation. But there are obvious ulterior motives: Van De Merwe smartly distils popular opinion into sound bites such as: “The prawn doesn’t really understand the concept of ownership of property” and news cameras tend to focus on the black market, run by Nigerians, and even inter-species prostitution. “There are a lot of secrets in District 9,” we hear intoned.
One of those secrets is that the prawns aren’t exactly happy with their living conditions either and are working on an escape plan. But, true to form, the humans aren’t content for that to happen, at least not until man has harnessed their visitors’ genetic power for heavy-duty armaments. After studying a rare mutant, one top bod at the shady Multi-National United observes: “What happens to him is not important. What matters is that we harness from him all we can.”
This is a gloomy assessment of human greed and the thirst for money. On the one hand, the cost is our intergalactic reputation, on the other it is the reduction of documentary articulacy into the language of the fugitive action flick. Still, perhaps we can redeem ourselves in the inevitable District 10.
12. Oct 2009 at 0:00 | Howard Swains