Feb 4, 2020
District 9 (2009)
Director Neill Blomkamp has been more recently associated with the big budget dystopian flick Elysium, but it was 2009’s District 9 that brought him to the world’s attention. Made for just $30 million and set in the relative-to-Hollywood obscurity of Johannesburg, South Africa, it’s fair to say that Blomkamp’s debut came as a surprise to moviegoers and critics alike.
From the heavy Afrikaner accents that would normally send studio execs running for the hills, to the semi-documentary style and little-known South African actors, there’s plenty here for anyone tired of the same old sci-fi summer blockbusters.
The film begins in 1982, with the arrival of a vast alien mothership that hovers ominously over Johannesburg. Quite why these extraterrestrial visitors have shunned the established protocol of threatening either a) the White House or b) New York and/or Los Angeles is unclear, but a refreshing change of location nonetheless, and one of the many unique elements dotted throughout District 9.
The documentary approach in particular dominates the first quarter of the film, as news reports set the scene for the alien ship’s arrival, and interviews heighten the mix of curiosity and fear that befits first contact with an alien race.
Unlike many of its peers, however, District 9 doesn’t immediately plunge us into a series of massive battles against bloodthirsty alien invaders.
Instead, the film whips forward—all too quickly, in fact—from their 1982 arrival to 2010, where things have descended into a much more mundane scenario here on Earth. The aliens are described as having been an underclass of their own society, and a large internment camp springs up outside of Johannesburg to house them. Meanwhile, the news reports take on a more sinister and xenophobic tone, as interviewees ponder what should happen to the undesirable creatures they’ve labeled “prawns”. One man says, “You can’t say that they don’t look like that, right?”, signaling the thinly-veiled ignorant racism that pervades the society presented in this movie.
Many of the interviews presented are given by employees of a government agency set up to supervise the newcomer alien race. Heading this pack of bureaucrats is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a geeky middle-management type destined for greatness. Well, destined for excruciating pain and suffering, really, but with flashes of greatness thrown in. As a mildly sympathetic (but no less casually racist) voice in how to handle the prawn population, Wikus is chosen to lead an eviction campaign through the now impoverished and savage camp known as District 9.
Of course, he’s not going alone. Also tagging along (and in true control) is the private security contractor Multi-National United (MNU), led by the antagonistic Colonel Koobus Venter (David James). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: no one does borderline psychotic military commanders quite like the South Africans.
With MNU’s militarized presence descending upon District 9, it’s no surprise that the mission quickly deteriorates into the forced eviction and slaughter of alien residents. Here, the movie jarringly shrugs off much of its documentary guise and moves in a more gory, violent direction.
As we learn more about the disgusting conditions in which the aliens are forced to live, and also the resident Nigerian crime boss who preys on their poverty, heavy-handed parallels are drawn to any number of atrocities in recent history. From the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags, to the more recent District Six area of South Africa’s apartheid-era Cape Town that inspired Blomkamp’s title, this not-so-subtle theme underlies much of the story here.
Among all of this eviction-related chaos, Wikus and his team encounter an alien amusingly and incongruently named “Christopher Johnson” (Jason Cope). Unlike the others of his kind, who seem simple at best, and MNU cannon-fodder at worst, Christopher is a savvy scientist plotting to escape Earth with his son. It helps that the mothership’s command module is sitting under his shack, of course, and that he’s spent the last twenty years gathering supplies to make the fuel it needs to fly back up to the ship and help them get the hell out of dodge.
Which makes it typically poor timing for a military eviction force to suddenly swoop down on his home/lab looking to confiscate alien weapons and tech. Especially as he’s just finished gathering the fuel he needs, and his son is itching to hit the intergalactic road (just think how many “are we there yets” will happen along that particular journey).
Searching Christopher’s home, Wikus finds an alien fuel canister, and carelessly sprays it all over himself. This prompts an immediate sickly reaction, which only gets worse as the movie progresses. It’s eventually revealed (after some heavy vomiting and unpleasant black snot nosebleeds) that Wikus is transforming into one of the aliens.
MNU seizes upon this opportunity to conduct research upon the neo-hybrid Wikus, mainly because they have a whole new arsenal of alien weaponry to exploit. As established earlier in the film, the alien’s weapons can only be fired by the aliens themselves, but it appears Wikus is the exception, as his newly developed alien hand is also able to pull the triggers on these devices.
During the course of this research, Wikus sees just what MNU is really up to: perfecting gruesome ways to kill the aliens and harvest whatever it can of their biology and technology for humankind. Even though the general bloodlust of Colonel Koobus should have tipped off Wikus right when their mission began, Wikus makes up for his naiveté by using his alien arm to Incredible Hulk his way out of the MNU facility and back to District 9, where he seeks Christopher’s counsel.
Christopher and Wikus form a tenuous partnership, and are able to come to an agreement: Wikus will help him raid MNU’s facility to get back the fuel canister, in exchange for Christopher using the alien ship’s medical technology to return Wikus to a less prawny form. Although successful, this venture into the concentration camp-like facility reveals the depths of humanity’s depravity to Christopher, whose priorities change to an immediate liberation of his people.
He reassures Wikus that he’ll return to help him out in three years, a promise which is met, shall we say, less than enthusiastically. Wikus knocks Christopher out and steals not only his ship, but also his son. Why, exactly? It matters little, as their rise to the mothership is interrupted within a few seconds when the ship gets blown out of the sky. This prompts a race to the crash site between MNU and the Nigerians, who are also after Wikus’ arm, for curious reasons involving a witch doctor.
In the ensuing carnage, Wikus fights off both groups with a handily placed alien exo-suit, activated by Christopher’s son (ah, so that’s why he took him… wait, what?). Christopher makes his way back to the ship with the protection of the now heavily mechanized Wikus (quite the promotion from administrative assistant), who makes a heroic last stand against Col. Koobus’s troops to allow the two aliens to get back to the mothership.
Eventually, the Colonel appears to have Wikus cornered, but then a pack of angry aliens quite literally blow Koobus’s mind, before unceremoniously having him for dinner. His transformation to the “prawn side” complete, Wikus disappears into District 9 with only a parting gift to his wife convincing us that he’ll return someday (unsurprisingly, District 10 is already in the cards, given that this one took in several hundred million dollars at the box office, and also scored a Best Picture nomination).
While District 9 is an outstanding first effort from Blomkamp that keeps you glued to the screen throughout, it’s not necessarily the infallible commentary on racism that some have since claimed. The allegories are well-defined but not subtle, and the criminal Nigerian element and their cult religion actually hints at an unwitting level of xenophobia on the part of the film’s creators. The movie was even subsequently banned in Nigeria for its myopic portrayal of the country’s culture.
Where Blomkamp clearly succeeds is in delivering an exciting and unusual blend of style and action. The movie feels like an indie, but rarely seems cheap. The relatively unknown cast is utterly convincing, while the atypical location and all of its historical context lend added credibility to the film’s subject matter.
District 9 is far from perfect, but it certainly beats the vast majority of stereotypical alien invasion blockbusters that we’ve come to expect in recent years. Blomkamp comes at a subject he knows well from a creative angle, which in Hollywood these days is perhaps as unlikely as the sudden arrival of intergalactic visitors.