District 9 (film, 2009)

This review appeared originally in Death Ray #21. That was the last issue we published. I’m getting close to finishing archiving all the articles and reviews I wrote for that magazine on this site now.  What will I do then?

Below I talk briefly about South African SF. If there’s more of it visible to English eyes than there used to be, District 9 had a hand in that.

15/112 mins

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Writer: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike


Space aliens in Johannesburg add to the city’s troubled racial mix in this action flick/ mockumentary hybrid. (“Hybrid” is the appropriate word here, by the way). Like mechs? You’ll love this.

We’d be hard pressed to come up with a list of South African science fiction, but if we could scrape one together (if you can, by the way, send it in, only the tedious Charlie Jade immediately leaps to mind) District 9 would come top of the list.

Like Charlie Jade, District 9 is set in a parallel version of Johannesburg. (The similarities end there this is much more exciting). 20 years ago, an alien spacecraft drifted to a halt over the city. Then nothing happened. Three months later, the South African government cut their way in. They discover a huge population of helpless insectoid aliens wasting away. It’s surmised that these are the worker caste of a stratified species (a theory more or less borne out by subsequent events). They’re rescued and settled in an area called District 9. The aliens, leaderless, aimless, prove a massive hindrance to good order, District 9 rapidly becomes a shanty town. The government decides to relocate them to a concentration camp 200km away, and that’s where we join the action…

As usual with SF films from first time filmmakers, District 9‘s universe is idea dense, complex, and requires an amount of exposition, but this is a rare example where all this actually all works. probably because much of the background information is delivered through a series of mockumentary interviews and (genuine) news footage intercut with a corporate video introducing us to humungous cockend Wikus van de Merwe and the organisation he works for. Called MNU, it’s a callous corporation paid to manage the aliens, but is more interested in their amazing weaponry. The documentary footage segues into standard cinematography, almost without the audience being aware of it. Much of this wobbly cam footage (as wobbly as genuine newsfeed, not the extreme, motion sickness inducing oscillations we’ve come to expect). Wikus, who begins the film a petty, speciesist bureaucrat, is charged with delivering eviction notices to the derogatorily named ‘prawns’, and boy, is his day about to turn to shit.

In the township, Wikus is sprayed with a mysterious liquid which slowly begins to transform him into one of the aliens. Because of this, he becomes the only human capable of activating the aliens’ guns, and thus becomes the most valuable man on Earth.

It’s cue mayhem as Wikus escapes from MNU custody (they are about to vivisect him), runs to District 9 and uncovers the only member of the prawns’ ruling caste on Earth, Christopher Johnson, who created the liquid to reactivate the dormant mothership and get his folks home. He promises to reverse Wikus’ transformation in return for his help in retrieving the liquid. (At this point the film completes its metamorphosis into action flick, returning to the interviews toward the end).

Although the District 9 is probably intended as an oblique comment on inequality post-apartheid South Africa, the film’s racial politics are inconstant and messy. There’s an element of the “White man’s burden” in the portrayal of the aliens as unruly, childlike creatures that need guidance, many of the white folk are evil money men and the major black contribution to the film is a bunch of violent Nigerian gangsters.

But then, South Africa does suffer from massive, poverty-stricken townships, exploitative white folks and foreign criminal elements. Perhaps only South Africa could make a film like this, perhaps it is indicative of the underlying divisions still present in their society, or perhaps it shows how far the nation has come, and how much further it feels it has to go. Or maybe, with our post-colonial white liberal hand-wringing sensibilities we’re reading far too much into it. That the film was shot in an actual shanty town from which the residents had recently been relocated themselves (albeit to better accommodation) muddies the water further. It’s possible to think about this far too much, mind. South Africa’s past colours outsiders’ perceptions, and the country has social difficulties that are, perhaps, unique in their expression.

From an SF point of view, District 9 might bear superficial comparison with Alien Nation, but although the themes are similar, the delivery is very different. And it is a belter in its own right. It tries to be thoughtful, it’s full of action, the effects are close to flawless, and there’s the best mech-suit sequence we’ve seen yet committed to celluloid. There are plot holes, it’s not clear how the aliens got their weapons (and that mech) down from their ship (they were rescued, remember?) and why the lone surviving brainbug didn’t just take the ship away when the aliens arrived is unclear (he may have been a child at the time, we suppose). All the tech Johnson scavenges for on the ground to make his fuel would have been on the ship originally, after all. Plus it’s a bit hokey that this fuel would cause Wikus to mutate, it’s a simple SF twist on the “in your shoes” reversal of fortune found scattered throughout cinema’s history.

But it doesn’t really matter. Much of this uncertainty is either nicely obfuscated or explained in the mock interviews. (These fall down only once where, at the end, an academic interviewee knows that Johnson promised Wikus he would come back after three years, which he would have no way of knowing). District 9 contains something that is rare in modern SF cinema, which has become an arena for of gravelly-voiced, emotionally compromised hardmen. It’s got a genuine transformative arc for its hero (quite literally in this case) who while turning into an alien crustacean discovers his humanity, his heart and his courage. Johnson’s relationship with his son, too, strikes a genuine note. Far from the usual mawkish parent/child interactions we get served up, where all too often a kid acts only as a hinge for some emotional plot point to turn on (For a recent example we think of Outlander), Christopher’s attitude toward his son seems entirely natural (for a space prawn).

Shot with an eye to realism and a breed of visual economy, District 9‘s action scenes are as unfussy as they are gripping – there’s little of the quick cut confusion we’ve been seeing in war films since Saving Private Ryan. The climactic gun battle are especially intense. Further praise is due the effects. Blomkamp has a background in this area of the industry, and it shows. He knows how to make them work very well in the context of a film, rarely focussing on them front and centre. A lot of the time the aliens are simply there. This helps integrate the prawns and their artefacts into the live action, and after a while you forget that these things are not real. It’s as close to seamless as it gets, and shows that, in the right hands, effects can make even a mid-budget film like this (though you really can’t tell) sing.

A solid debut for Blomkamp, District 9 is an SF film you would quite happily see again and again. Lucky us: the ending is left wide open for a sequel.

Did you know…?

Blomkamp originally explored the ideas of District 9 in his acclaimed short, Alive in Joburg (2005). This led to Blomkamp being selected to direct the Peter Jackson produced Halo movie. However, with that project languishing in development hell, Blomkamp pitched the District 9 to Jackson in its stead. “Neill Blomkamp is a terrifically exciting young director,” said Jackson. “[Halo] never happened, but we loved working with Neill so much that when he pitched us District 9, we decided it would be fun to turn his idea into a feature film.”



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