[14 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
One hates to think that this is how it would be. After centuries of resorting to internment and segregation as a means of dealing with ‘dissent’, the arrival of a technologically advanced (albeit aesthetically displeasing) alien race should result in something more progressive than an Apartheid-like police state. Yet that’s exactly what happens in Neill Blomkamp’s inventive extension of his 2005 short Alive in Joborg, now titled District 9. By showing us what happens to a derelict spacecraft stranded above South Africa, its entire extraterrestrial contents fenced off in squalid camps for the last two decades, the first time filmmaker offers the kind of sci-fi social commentary that made instantly classics like Planet of the Apes such pointed, prophetic allegories.
Utilizing a mock documentary approach (and then abandoning it when the drama demands it), Blomkamp doesn’t focus on our first contact with an interstellar civilization. Instead, we fast forward way beyond the “Prawns” arrival to their current sordid situation. Nicknamed for their uncanny resemblance to giant crustaceans, the nearly two million members of what was apparently the mothership’s working class crew have been housed in District 9 under the international auspices of the MNU (Multi-National United). There, they are subjected to horrific living conditions, the criminal infiltration by surrounding Africa tribes, and some despicable displays of out and out racism.
It’s up to newly appointed bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley) to evict the unsettled creatures and move them to their new home - a clean and sterile “camp” called District 10. Naturally, a few of these beings don’t want to be relocated, especially ‘Christopher Johnson’ and his young ‘son’. Turns out, these two have figured out how to refuel the spacecraft and are desperate to get it running. But with Wikus in the way, they are prevented from acting. During a raid of their home, our human paper-pusher falls victim to a situation that has him suddenly turned from captor to captive. With Christopher’s help, Wikus tries to uncover the secrets settled in District 9 while getting back to his own uniquely “human” way of life.
By avoiding the typical end of the world apocalypse that most alien invasion movies mandate and illustrating instead man’s continual inhumanity to all things different and diverse, District 9 becomes that most elusive of science fiction films - a serious and thoughtful dissertation on who we really are. Indeed, the best speculative fiction is merely a mask for covering up our true selves. As Blomkamp begins his examination, giving Wikus, his surround government stronghold, and the various residents living near the “Prawns” a chance to air their views, we feel like its Southern American circa the 1950s all over again. Even the silly seafood slur becomes uncomfortable and disturbing after a while.
Blomkamp, clearly inspired by his native land’s unconscionable treatment of its long suppressed population, pours as many references to said history as possible. He wants to make sure we never forget the regrettable, indefensible manner in which the majority (or in the case of South Africa, the far more sly minority) wield power over those without standing or strength. The use of cat food as a metaphor for drugs and (regulated) drug addiction, the exploitive criminal element contained within the nasty Nigerian gangsters, remind one of contemporary urban blight, while the setting showcases how we tend to warehouse people problems (refugees, victims of natural disaster) in hopes that the complications will stay within the fence line. Of course, they never do.
But District 9 takes it further. It ventures dangerously close into Holocaust territory, especially in a sequence where Wikus learns of a Mengele-like lab where aliens are experimented on for their possible technological (and tactical) advances. It also argues for the kind of armed uprising that most cases of segregation and forced separation produce. Yet there is more to this movie than messages and CG civil rights. District 9 inside a solid action film, an infiltrate and investigate kind of military mission that uses the POV gimmick as a way of having us play a part. It also offers an unusual perspective from the character department. Unlike the implication of the trailers, this is not a “prawn” story per say. It is a human saga. As we see the creatures getting harassed, as we witness their own angry and occasional doe-eyed sadness, we sense something bigger at play. Once the last act arrives, Blomkamp delivers on said promise.
It’s hard to talk about the last 30 minutes of this movie without giving too much away. Faith plays a big part in the actions of several characters, as does a desire to do things strictly by the book. The soldiery comes off as faceless and forgettable, as meaningful as the mechanisms of death they bring to this final showdown. With Wikus still at the center, his decision to help Christopher occasionally clouding his judgment, we wind up with a fight for life that also has some cosmic consequences as well. With all these allusions and symbols shuffling around, you might think that District 9 is too “intelligent” to be entertaining, striving for parable when it should be putting on the spectacle. But this is where Blomkamp, along with producer Peter Jackson, really shine. Not only is this movie thoughtful, it’s thrilling as well.
Even better, District 9 doesn’t come up with the easy answers. When all is said and done, when the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared, the differences between man and alien still exist. One character’s motivations have changed forever, while another’s are left up to speculation (and a possible sequel). There is hope in the conclusion, as well as irreversible harm. Indeed, one could look at what happens and see a future where integration is all but impossible. Blomkamp’s tone does tend toward a more genocidal solution, and for all their claimed compassion, the face of the MNU looks like any other badly managed bureaucracy - loaded with waste and competing personal interests. Anyone who goes to District 9 and expects to see a WETA take on Independence Day will be very disappointed. Expect something a whole lot smarter and more subtle and you’ll be richly rewarded. This is one of the Summer’s - and the year’s - best.