One of the first few lines of District 9 – a unique movie about an Earth-based conflict between aliens and humans, shot in the style of a documentary – sets the tone for what’s to come: “To everyone’s surprise, the ship didn’t come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg.” Director-writer Neil Blomkamp has spun a tale of social commentary, mockery and chuckle-inducing irony that promises to make this one a cult classic.
In 1982, with their ship damaged due to a part that fell out onto Earth (which no one has been able to find, of course), the aliens were stuck here and so begin a slow process of settling on the planet. The eventual colony they set up is called District 9.
The district is pretty much a fenced-in slum. Naturally, human-alien interactions ensue and the dominant population of the planet labels the aliens with a derogatory term, ‘prawns’, due to their resemblance to a South African species of king crickets called Parkton Prawns.
The best part about District 9 is how convincing it is. It takes a lot of persistent imagination to write a science fiction story and you have to immerse yourself in that world for days, playing out different scenarios in your head. Writing a socio-political commentary, on the other hand, requires tremendous amount of research and understanding of how humans work. It must have been an unfathomable effort to do both things together and make it seem like this was the only logical way the world would react to the events of the film. It’s probably because I watch movies from a writer’s perspective that this was apparent to me, as a couple of people I talked to did not even notice this aspect of the plot. To craft a masterful story – nay, a world – and then to resist the urge to bring it out as the real star, rather than the characters? For me, that’s something only George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien have managed to resist. Take a bow, Blomkamp, take a bow.
The undertones of social commentary run throughout the film, touching upon topics such as xenophobia, ostracism, apartheid, racial politics, etc. In fact, a little bit of digging on our friendly neighbourhood Wikipedia throws up the fact that the movie title is a direct reference to District Six – a residential area in Cape Town that the South African government declared as a ‘white-only’ place in 1966, leading to the “relocation” of over 66,000 citizens.
And that’s where the movie starts: Thirty years into the alien occupation, the powers-that-be decide to move the Prawns to a new refugee camp, outside of human contact.
The film is shot from the perspective of a documentary crew covering the life of Wikus Van De Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley), the agent in charge of the relocation plan which is being implemented by leading security corporation, MNU. Needless to say, MNU is the world’s second largest weapons manufacturer and they want to get their hands on the aliens’ superior armoury.
Wikus Van De Merwe confronts one of the ‘Prawns’
The plot shows the intriguing journey of Van De Merwe as a man who thinks he is protecting the world from the aliens to one who finally transcends such distinctions. What is great to see is how wonderfully flawed his character is. This is no morally upright citizen, nor is he up to his neck in shady deals. Van de Merwe is as human a character as you will see on celluloid, and director-writer Neill Blomkamp throws a superb ironical twist into the mix: Our protagonist is infected by the alien genes and is in a race against time to stop from being turned into a Prawn. The plot thickens, Watson!
I’m not good enough a judge of acting to know whether being a new face is what makes Sharlto Copley so believable as Van De Merwe. He seems immensely talented and completely soaks in the character. In all likelihood, it’s a role he will be defined by for the rest of his career; but I do hope that’s not the case.
Big alien gun makes humans go sploighk!
As a casual movie-goer, District 9 is a must-see for a whale of a time. And stop squirming in your seat, you will be rewarded for your patience by a gore-filled climatic action scene with lots of alien weaponry that makes humans go sploighk (no, really)!
But as a writer or avid cinema-goer, it’s a movie to be watched more than once for the numerous references and layers it carries. At times, it’s almost like Blomkamp threw in too many things out of the fright of it flopping and never getting the chance to make another movie. Thankfully, that’s not the case and the world will get to see another of his future endeavours.
P.S. – Blomkamp had previously made a six-minute short film based on the same premise, called Alive in Joburg (2005). The cool part? All of the interview statements which do not explicitly mention extraterrestrials, were taken from authentic interviews with South Africans who had been asked their opinions of Zimbabwean refugees! Watch it here: