- District 9
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Wikus Van De Merwe – Sharlto Copley
Grey Bradnam – Jason Cope
Sarah Livingstone – Nathalie Boltt
CLR Rating: 4/5 stars
“We Have Met the Enemy and…”
Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 had a fantastic marketing campaign. The first trailer released contained surveillance footage of a tentacled creature handcuffed in an interrogation room while human investigators berated it with questions: What are you doing here? Why don’t you just leave? How do your weapons work? The creature’s face is blurred, as though, like a criminal on Cops, its identity must be protected. It responds to the interrogator’s questions willingly enough, but its language is a series of grumbles and clicks—completely unintelligible to the audience. Only when another version of the trailer leaked was the creature’s face seen in its entirety, its words subtitled: “We didn’t mean to land here. We had no choice. We mean you no harm. We just want to go home.”
The choice to first release the trailer without subtitles, to let the audience respond to the creatures by their appearance and foreign speech, is a fiercely intelligent marketing decision. District 9 is a summer-blockbuster science fiction film, but it is effectively about racial segregation, the depth of human cruelty, and ultimately apartheid.
Twenty-eight years before the film takes place, an alien craft came to hover, not above Chicago, Washington, or Manhattan, but in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa. The government investigates, finding the creatures “extremely malnourished” and “in need of help.” The nation responds by placing them in alien refugee camp District 9—which, by the time the film takes place, is a disgusting slum. The creatures are referred to as “prawns,” bottom feeders. They do in fact bear a resemblance to some kind of sea creature; although humanoid in shape, they are taller, thinner, and slimy, with small tentacles to create speech and evidently to aid in digestion. They are filmed eating raw meat, vomiting black fluid, and digging through the trash. Humans are disgusted by this decidedly uncivilized behavior, and riots force the government to relocate the aliens to another locale.
In a fictional August, 2010 (deliberately not far at all in the future), the South African government has hired Multi National United (MNU), a weapons manufacturing corporation, to perform the relocation. What eventually becomes apparent is that MNU has no desire to move the aliens; they want to learn how to use their weapons, which are linked to alien DNA and only fire in the arms of the creatures.
District 9 was developed and financed by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, and directed by and starring South Africans. It is perhaps the most dystopian vision of alien contact ever filmed: the aliens are not the enemy, we are. The humans in the film are horrid, cruel stereotypes, laughing as alien eggs pop like popcorn, shooting creatures at random, and torturing an innocent man to discover the meaning of the alien weapons. The aliens (one of whom is Christopher Johnson, a decidedly nondescript and very American name) are scammed, abused and tortured, living in a horrendous slum. Unlike in Independence Day, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or any number of other self-congratulatory sci-fi films, we are not fighting to save ourselves from these unthinkably pitiful creatures. We’re using, torturing, and abusing them. The scariest part of E.T. was the point at which scientists break into Elliott’s house in their faceless helmets and enormous white suits—at that moment, it became clear humans were the enemy. District 9 compounds that point, exposing the humans’ malice and the creatures’ vulnerability throughout the film.
The film’s documentary style is reminiscent of 2008’s blockbuster Cloverfield, minus the shaky-cam. The director chose to use steady-cam as often as possible, which brings the audience directly into the fracas and creates a realistic feel. The special effects are brilliant: the makeup and CGI are Oscar-worthy. Director Blomkamp’s previous credits include work as a 3D Animator on a small number of films, and this knowledge evidently helped him helm a movie whose visual feel is truly authentic. Though the effects are an integral part of the picture, they are not used to boast new technologies or to flaunt how cool the creatures are. Instead they’re employed to enhance the story and add to the documentary style of the movie.
Apartheid only ended in the 1990s, and South Africa is still rocked by its remaining waves. The film begins with interview footage: subjects range from people on street corners, to licensed social workers, to jailed white-collar criminals. They say, “Keep them separate from us,” “they must go away.” Signs bar aliens from certain areas of the city: “No non-human loitering,” and finally, most importantly, “We must learn from what happened.” It’s obvious the film is an allegory for segregation, its setting in Johannesburg only a finishing touch on the message. Although it feels formulaic at times (to be fair, science fiction as a genre appears hard-pressed to come up with new and different plots these days), the film’s style and special effects make it a good addition to the long list of high-quality sci-fi.