Twenty-some-odd years ago, an alien spaceship parked itself over Johannesburg, South Africa, presumably because the alien intelligence knew that was the single best place to go if it wanted to make itself into a heavy-handed metaphor for apartheid. The South Africans went up to the ship and found, so they said, a million aliens stuffed into the ship in wretched conditions, and so they did what any right-thinking government would do with a bunch of aliens: they killed the whole lot of them rather than allow them into their country.
Oh, wait, I’m sorry, that’s what a right-wing government would do. My bad.
Instead, they evacuated all of them from the ship and set them up in a dingy slum outside of Johannesburg which was, I’m sure, so much better for them. By the time the movie’s story begins, the slum houses 1.6 million “prawns” (the derogatory nickname for the insecty-looking aliens), and the government has decided that’s just way too many of them way too close to the city, and it’s time to relocate the lot of them to a much more concentration-camp like setup much further out of town.
District 9 (2009)
(out of a possible five)
And that’s where our protagonist, mid-level bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe1 (Sharlto Copley) comes into play, as it’s his job to head up the relocation operation. Thanks to the “mockumentary” format director Neill Blomkamp employs, it’s not initially clear that Wikus is our lead character — Blomkamp throws a whole bunch of talking heads at us at first, and it only becomes clear we’re supposed to be paying the most attention to Wikus after the movie’s inciting incident does its inciting. (Though in retrospect, I suppose, it was probably obvious: he was the first of the many heads to start talking.)
Once incidents have been properly incited (and I don’t want to say anything more specific on that front in case you haven’t yet been spoiled), we move into what turns out to be a pretty damn exciting movie. Most of the scenes kept the tension ratcheted up once the story kicked into gear, and I had two distinct “oh, shit, that was cool” moments. This seemed like the sort of movie where I should have known exactly what was going to happen before it did, but I honestly had no idea where the story was headed — it felt like just about anything could have happened to the main characters and I’ve have just rolled with it.
I like the idea of the mockumentary format in general, but District 9 suffers from some of the same problems with the format that most other faux documentaries do: there’s a need to show stuff which the camera could not possibly have picked up. Director Neill Blomkamp keeps the feel up pretty well for awhile, but eventually needs to show some of the aliens talking and plotting amongst themselves, and from that point on the mockumentary bits are mostly thrown aside except for some shots which were supposedly from security cameras. I’m sure Blomkamp made the choices he did because they thought they’d best let him tell the story he wanted to tell, but I think I’d have preferred he just not even start the documentary-style footage if he couldn’t carry it off throughout.
But that relatively minor quibble aside, District 9 was a solid piece of science fictional entertainment, and one with a much more well-developed emotional core than one might expect from a movie where soliders frequently get exploded into bloody splotches. Copley had apparently never before acted in front of a camera until Blomkamp, a childhood friend of his, cast him as the lead in his movie, but you’d never know he was so inexperienced: there certainly was never a point where I wasn’t sure what Wikus was feeling. Even the main “prawn” character was driven by his emotion moreso than by the simple needs of the plot. I was about to say that I guess that sort of emotional depth should be expected from any SF movie which manages to get itself nominated for Best Picture (expanded field of entrants or not), but, well, Avatar also scored a nomination.
For a relatively low-budget movie — and I do mean “relative to Avatar” — the special effects were indeed special. (I feel safe in guessing having producer Peter Jackson’s WETA Workshops working on the movie probably helped.) Mixing bipedal insectoids, miles-long spaceships, alien weaponry and a heavily-armed twenty-foot-tall battle suit into the middle of Johannesburg and the sad tin hovels of the arid alien slum made for visuals different from most SF FX-fests.
Recommended for fans of: Thoughtful, unexpected, explody movies; precocious insectoid children; Johannesburg; science fiction as metaphor for real-world problems.
I’m half-convinced the only reason the main character was named “Wikus” was so that another character could make a “Dickus” joke late in the movie. ↩