DIRECTED BY: Neill Blomkamp
WRITTEN BY: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
PEW PEW: Unrelenting urban combat with exciting weapons physics. This film gets intense.
CAT FOOD: Stunning social commentary covering racial segregation, xenophobia, and grey morality.
I have chosen Disctrict 9 as the first film to be reviewed for this site not only because I feel it is the best example of how my rating system works, but also because I believe it to simply be one of the greatest films ever made.
I’ll be quite frank, I had no idea what to expect when I first sat down to watch this movie. It had come highly recommended by some pretty upstanding people, and I was quite curious as to why it was populating the bargain bins in video stores. If one were to strip it down to bare bones, I suppose one could compare it to the eighties film Alien Nation, but with an aesthetic similar to the video game Half-Life 2. These factors were enough to coax me into giving it a chance.
Based on Blomkamp’s short film Alive In Joburg, the film begins in mockumentary form (it eventually shifts into actual narrative, however) as the background story is explained:
In 1982, an alien mothership mysteriously appears over Johannesburg, South Africa and, upon investigation, humans find millions of malnourished aliens on board. The aliens, nicknamed prawns after a large, cricket-like pest that scavenges parts of South Africa, are placed in a camp within city limits until it is decided what is to be done about them. Over the course of twenty years, the camp becomes a slum called, you guessed it, District 9.
When trying to mingle with humanity in Johannesburg, the prawns face the effects of extreme xenophobia and become scavengers, often relying on varying degrees of criminal activity to remain afloat. It is also revealed that certain factions are also interested in the powerful alien weaponry the prawns possess — weapons that, for unknown reasons, can only be operated by the prawns themselves.
In 2002, as tensions reach an all-time high, the alien affairs people at MNU devise a plan to evict the aliens from their homes in District 9 and move them to District 10, which is made up of small tents and is located beyond the city and away from the human populace. After being promoted, Wikus van de Merwe is placed in charge of this eviction effort. During the search of a prawn shack, Wikus is sprayed by a strange alien liquid that, at a rate that would make Brundlefly cringe, transforms him into a prawn over the course of the film.
A bit of this review must be dedicated to the brilliance of the director himself. Blomkamp is one of the most promising directors on the market today. A South African himself, Blomkamp uses the unique landscape of his homeland to great effect, creating a unique experience for those of us used to the over-Americanised settings of most films. As mentioned in District 9, most people would have assumed the mothership would have arrived over an American city, but it does not. It picks Johannesburg, the perfect place to base a story about racial segregation and xenophobia. His heavy and expert use of motion capture technology, used here to bring the prawns to life, adds a synthetic element to compliment landscapes we’re not quite used to.
Honestly speaking, I count Neill Blomkamp as something of a modern Stanley Kubrick. Not because the two directors’ films are in any way alike, but because they both have unique styles that function outside the bounds of traditional Hollywood. When you watch a Kubrick film, you know it’s Kubrick. When you watch a Blomkamp film, you know it’s Blomkamp. The depth of the narrative in spite of the subject matter, and the ease of their ability to control the viewers’ perception of their characters is another commonality. For instance, I compare Blomkamp’s Wikus van de Merwe to Kubrick’s Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange). At the beginning of both stories, you really don’t think very highly of these characters, but over the course of the narrative, most viewers will at least partially change their minds.
In terms of narrative, the film is brilliantly arranged. As co-workers and loved ones speak of Wikus for a documentary crew at the film’s opening, they speak in the past tense, foreshadowing the tragic aspect of the film. And at the film’s end, the documentary style returns, allowing the final speaker a most beautiful moment to end everything in a nod to where it started.
As for how my rating system comes into play, I believe that District 9 is one of several examples of science fiction films that seamlessly blend action / adventure elements with deep social commentary. Action (depicted in my system as the sound of a stereotypical sci-fi laser gun — pew pew!) has been a big part of science fiction for quite a while. Some sci-fi films use this and this alone to keep us entertained and there’s nothing wrong with that. District 9’s heaping action helpings are glorious, gory, and entertaining to say the least. The alien weapons employ video game physics, which adds picturesque excitement and satisfaction to the later battles, and there are many facets to the battles themselves. For instance, MNU fights not only the prawns but Nigerian gangs as well.
But a science fiction film doesn’t have to rely on action alone. In fact, many of the more famous sci-fi films use sharp social commentary to fuel their stories, and a a lot of the time they do this completely free of action elements. Often, these films reflect political and social climates of the eras they were made in. To reflect this element of science fiction, I chose cat food, which, in District 9 is somewhere between candy and drugs for prawns. This film bleeds social commentary, as it covers issues of apartheid which heavily affected South Africa. It also presents grey morality, something which is very important in social commentary. What is good, and when can it be bad? At the centre of the film’s powerful social commentary is the transformation of Wikus van de Merwe from a sniveling errand boy to a very stubborn and emotionally conflicted saviour. Many, many praises for Sharlto Copley’s depiction of this character. I still think he does more selfish (but ignorant) villainy during the film than anything, but it’s what’s in the end that counts.
With District 9, Blomkamp didn’t juggle the two fine elements of science fiction film, he knitted them together into an unrelenting tension that absolutely does not stop until the very end.