Movies like District 9 come along rarely. They’re the
movies that come from nowhere, that cut through the shit, that deliver
on almost every single level you’d want a movie to deliver. It’s a film
that intoxicates you not just with story and action but with craft.
It’s a movie that reminds you that you don’t need a zillion dollar
budget and an army of Hollywood stars to make a film that connects,
that thrills, that excites.
Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, two decades after aliens came to Earth, District 9 isn’t
subtle; writer/director Neill Blomkamp is telling a story that’s
massively influenced by his own experience growing up in an apartheid
society and watching the aftermath of that society’s downfall. Producer
Peter Jackson said something at Comic Con that really reverberated with
me – while many young directors make movies about the movies they’ve
seen, Blomkamp has made a movie about his life. That is a huge part of
why District 9 feels so fresh, even though much of its original set-up comes from the underrated Alien Nation.
When the alien ship came to a stop over Joburg the world held its
breath to see what would come next. Everyone waited. And waited. After
three months an effort was made to break into the ship, which was found
to be filled with starving extraterrestrials. Disparagingly called
Prawns because of their shellfish look, these aliens were drones and
unable to do much for themselves. Their queen had disappeared.
The Prawns were moved into a makeshift ghetto; their lives soon turned
pathetic and hardscrabble as they became addicted to cat food, as they
sold their alien weapons (usable only by those with alien DNA) on the
black market and scratched out shitty lives behind barbed wire. As the
film opens the people of Joburg have had about enough of the Prawns,
who are seen as shiftless and criminal and dangerous and sucking taxes
from the law-abiding citizens. The MNU, a multinational corporation
tasked with dealing with the Prawns, is preparing to move them to a new
ghetto outside of the city. And that’s when things go really wrong for
Wikus Van De Merwe, the administrator in charge of the whole thing.
Newcomer Shelto Copley plays Wikus and it’s an amazing performance. The
character transforms from a bumbling buffoon to a heartbreaking
disaster and Copley never misses a beat. He’s funny and infuriating and
sympathetic and irritating, all in good measure. In true science
fiction morality fashion this mildly racist bureaucrat (and props to
Blomkamp for not making him a drooling hater. We live in a time when
people who are flamingly racist hide behind all sorts of excuses and
veneers of civility) gets sprayed with alien juice that slowly begins
morphing him into one of them. For one Prawn with a plan this is a
disaster, and for MNU his sudden ability to wield alien weapons is
amazing. But for Wikus it’s a body horror nightmare that gets downright
Cronenbergian at times (with nods to the original The Fly, as one of Wikus’ arms quickly turns alien and he must constantly conceal it).
In many ways District 9 is a one man show, with Copley
playing against mostly CGI aliens, and it’s completely riveting. The
film includes insane action beats – the aliens have guns that simply
splatter humans – but the human (for want of a better, more overarching
term) beats are just as compelling. Blomkamp starts his film as a
psuedo-mockumentary, and the way the Prawns are portrayed makes it easy
to be disgusted by them. It’s a credit to Blomkamp (and co-writer Terri
Tatchell) that he’s able to make us truly feel for the Prawns without
suddenly turning them into an angelic race or revealing that all of the
disgusting things about them were propaganda. While I’ve heard the film
referred to as a scifi The Defiant Ones, Blomkamp is no
Stanley Kramer; sure, some of the race and class stuff is simplistic,
but it’s not the kind of grey-area-free fare Kramer trafficked in. Even
in the final minutes of the movie you’re questioning your sympathy for
Wikus, and it’s a brave film that does that.
Of course in the final minutes you’re also cheering like a mad person
as the movie – budgeted at just 30 million dollars – explodes in an
incredible battle that rivals anything else this summer. There’s a
giant mechasuit and heavy weaponry and competing factions and huge
amounts of juicy, bloody splattering (the camera gets doused in
liquefied human remains more than once). Blomkamp shows a remarkable
eye for action, crafting scenes that carry emotional weight and
cathartic oomph. There are moments in that final battle that are simply
iconic and classic.
As is the entire movie itself. I fear giving in to hyperbole, but District 9 invites
it to the extent that I am more afraid of underpraising a movie I’m
sure will be regarded as a science fiction classic. Walking out of the
theater I knew I had seen history being made; at the very least
Blomkamp is going to be a major force in the film industry. The FX work
is impeccable; there were no practical alien suits or animatronic
heads, something I found hard to believe. Between the excellent FX and
Blomkamp’s skill at making the Prawns into characters and not just part
of a CGI showreel I utterly forgot I was watching a movie with special
effects. That’s an astonishing feat.
But beyond that this is a movie that will fire imaginations of
generations of would-be filmmakers. It presents a world so deeply
textured and thoroughly thought out that it will inspire years of
obsessive fandom to sift through every reference, to fill in every
blank. And it ends on a note that demands a sequel; while the movie is
complete and total in itself and can stand alone, the possibilities for
what could come next are so spine-tinglingly intriguing that I’m all
but begging for the next film. District 9 is an amazing
movie, one that will sweep you up emotionally and intellectually, that
will give you plenty to think over and even more to marvel at. It’s an
achievement that needs to be seen to be believed, and once it’s seen
it’s guaranteed to be beloved.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you one of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century.