What would really happen if Earth was to come into contact with life extra-planetary? District 9, Neil Blomkamp’s from-left-field science fiction thriller/faux-doc, asks us this question, and provides some very unsettling answers– along with some of the most intelligent and satisfying entertainment to be found in the summer crop of seasonal blockbusters.
District 9 tells the story of how the humans of Johannesburg react to the sudden arrival in the 80’s of a massive alien mothership, which hovers ominously and silently above the city for three months before a human expedition cuts the juggernaut open and discovers inside an alien populace malnourished, weak, and apparently leaderless. The government places the aliens in a small shanty town inside the city, segregated from the human population, where the aliens (mockingly referred to as “Prawns”) eke out a living by trading their biometric technology for cat food. All of this information is doled out in the style of a documentary film, featuring interviews with historians and scholars and man-on-the-street style snippets that portray the attitudes of the common man and woman towards the alien refugees. As the film catches up to the present, the government has tasked private defense contractor Multinational United (MNU) with the governance of District 9, and MNU has kick-started an initiative to relocate the aliens from District 9 to a new encampment far outside the borders of the city. The film introduces bookish, prejudiced but affable Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an MNU field agent who has been placed in charge of the relocation effort.
Of course, things go awry. During the operation’s first day (during which we see Wikus coerce eviction notices from the aliens and burn down a shack full of alien eggs), Wikus and his team come across a canister filled with an unknown alien substance; before he can think twice about it, he gets sprayed with a face-full of the fluid, and from there his life begins to unravel. Within a day, Wikus discovers that his arm is mutating into an alien arm; he is whisked away by government agents and nearly dissected alive. Finding himself a fugitive from his government and an outsider to his own people, Wikus desperately searches for his salvation amongst what remains of the alien population in District 9.
The film, like Wikus, gradually begins to change, expanding upon it’s mockumentary approach by including Blomkamp’s omnipresent perspective as well. District 9 never fully sheds the faux-doc motif used to sell the film, but for quite a large chunk of it’s run time it departs from it, telling a story instead of merely reporting on it. The transition is smooth and seamless when it could have been abrupt, as Blomkamp establishes early on that his film is more than just a “what if” film that poses questions about humanity’s history with oppression and prejudice. District 9 certainly is firmly rooted in speculative science fiction, but there’s more to its agenda than heady discussions about racial politics.
This is ultimately it’s greatest strength– that it attempts to be a hybrid of both high-concept science fiction and a small-scale blockbuster, and it succeeds beyond expectations. Perhaps that’s hyperbolic, but consider 2008’s monster film Cloverfield. Weighing in at a projected $30 million budget, with a highly secretive viral marketing campaign to generate hype, Cloverfield wound up being essentially a cheat; nothing happened during most of its running time. The film was ultimately only a shell in which to contain some admittedly spectacular monster mayhem, with little in between as far as storytelling or character development.
Now, consider District 9. With a similar budget and using a similar marketing approach, District 9 never once dupes its audience, never once pulls the wool over their eyes. Even before it leaps into its impressive and dramatically satisfying action sequences, District 9 is more of an FX spectacle than Cloverfield, as the shipwrecked aliens are brought to life via CGI courtesy of Vancouver-based group Imagine Engine, to whom I suspect the film world will now accord their rapt attention. (Contrary to popular rumor and hear-say, WETA only created the alien mothership. The team that made Gollum so lifelike and expressive, you’ll be shocked to learn, had no hand in the birth of these equally lifelike and expressive aliens.) When the climactic battle is joined, it’s hard to believe that Blomkamp and company had any room left in their budget for mechasuits and endless hordes of bad guys departing this life in a splattered fashion. If nothing else, District 9 shows what can be done with only a meager sum of money and a marriage of ambition and imagination; had it been pure spectacle meant to breathe life into the dog days of summer, it would have been worth cheering for and celebrating.
But District 9 asserts itself as being high-concept science fiction first, and CGI entertainment second. 2009 may turn out to be the year that idea-based science fiction finally returns to the attentions of the mainstream between the release of District 9 and the sci-fi drama Moon, marking a potentially renewed interest in asking important hypothetical questions about human nature. The theoretical aspect of District 9, coupled with the human drama of Wikus’ body horror nightmare (fans of Cronenberg will recognize an homage to The Fly as Wikus attempts to hide his transformation from curious eyes), are what make the movie so special; it poses queries about our history with prejudice and intolerance, which even today (perhaps especially today) we haven’t managed to overcome and resolve. As such, for some, this may be a hard movie to watch, if not for the admittedly graphic violence then for the much more difficult demands that it makes of its audiences.
Ultimately, this is what makes the film so special; it is able to have a massive battle at the end that not only doesn’t feel shoehorned in for the popcorn crowd, but feels necessary, even appropriate. Whereas other summer fare (this season, the likes of Terminator Salvation and Transformers II, both of which stand out as examples of the subverted, action-oriented version of science fiction that has commonly become known as the genre standard these days) simply meander into wanton destruction, District 9 earns its action beats, and each of them carries greater weight as a result. The films ideas resonate in each explosion or gunshot, and as much as it is easy to lose yourself in the excitement, one can only realize that the massive loss of life and destruction being caused is the final result of human greed, ambition, and intolerance. The action has the effect, in the end, of being rather sobering.
A review of this film wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Sharlto Copley, a guy I’d never heard of until this film and someone I will now be eagerly watching for*. Copley acts against almost nothing but CGI for a large chunk of the running time, and while past experience dictates that this can lead to less impressive performances from actors Copley makes Wikus truly memorable. Copley runs the gamut of human emotions with Wikus– he is a loving husband and a good boss and friend. At the same time he is at least as bigoted as the humans he works with day in and day out; he is also spineless and appears to be somewhat of a buffoon. The raw, unbridled emotion that pours out of him after his transformation begins is shocking in how unexpected it is, and Copley’s performance makes all of those suppressed feelings palatable, making it easy to feel pity for the doomed hero despite his flaws and weaknesses. It is truly a performance to savor and remember.
For a first effort, District 9 is remarkable to say the very least. And for a low budget effort, it would have similarly been inspiring. As both, it is a true achievement in cinema, a return to the territory of thoughtful science fiction, a brain-engaging spectacle, Kafka with energy guns and Black Like Me with aliens, and easily one of the best films of the year. This is a film that will stay with you long after you have left the theater.
*Much like Blomkamp. If this is the kind of work they can produce on their first major theatrical release, I cannot wait to see what they do in the future.