“There’s many secrets in District 9”
Can we all agree that the demise of Halo the movie could possibly be one of Hollywood’s greatest moves in the past two years? Sure, Peter Jackson was behind the scenes and his handpicked, first-time director Neill Blomkamp was crafting some pretty nifty test footage, but would the studio machine have left their vision intact? I’m hard-pressed to say yes. Instead, however, that failure led to Jackson’s funding of an original screenplay for his new buddy Neil, titled District 9, that would eventually take the world by storm—first in an intricately laid out marketing plan; internet generated buzz that spread like wildfire; and ultimately the coveted number one movie in America designation. All this for a movie without a star or a proven auteur, and yet it made almost 10 million dollars more than its budget in only three days. Well, let me be the newest person to say welcome to Neil Blomkamp; I hope you decide to stick around for a while.
Remember those great Mechwarrior-like short films that sprang up as a sort of resume reel when Jackson shone the light onto this South African filmmaker? No? Okay, well maybe I’m that much of a geek, but everything he did in those test shoots has been brought to the big leagues with the precision and handling of a seasoned professional. Taking place in the Johannesburg slum of District 9, the quartered off area housing our alien “visitors” since 1982, the film is shot documentary style as the MNU, (Multi-National United), go through the process of relocating them to a safer place outside the city—safer for the South African citizens that is. The section of land has become a cesspool of these “prawns” as they scavenge, fight, and barter with the local Nigerian crimelords, trading their highly sophisticated weaponry, (that can’t be used by humans due to their biological components), for the delicacy that is cat food. Think Alien Nation meets Cloverfield in a story about race relations and you’ll begin to comprehend the vision put forth. I’ll just say the locale of Blomkamp’s hometown for this tale is not coincidental … the Apartheid allusions are fairly obvious to see.
Graphically, the design at work is pretty stellar—an alien icon has been created and the military, private businesses, and whomever else have utilized it in order to show who is welcome, or, in other words, to portray the racism at hand. District 9 has become a militarized zone for two decades, pretending to be one looking out for their safety, but really just a slice of land to keep them where they can be observed. The ship that brought them to Earth has been immobilized and their stay deemed indefinite. Discovered malnourished and scared, the South African government brought them down to the surface and even learned their language. It was never to assimilate and educate, however, but only to understand, hope to steal their technology, and capture them for medical experiments. The MNU isn’t only an establishment for the safe keeping of societal bliss over the fence; no, it is also one of the leading manufacturers of weaponry and military goods. Everyone has an ulterior motive; it’s the name of the game.
Caught in the middle of it all is Wikus Van De Merwe, played with poise and experience by Sharlto Copley. It is his only credited role for which I can see and man does it deliver. At first a simple pawn married to the MNU head’s daughter, he can appear to be a bit on the dull end of sharp, yet his face is never without a smile, endearing him to his men. He is assigned to head up the eviction committee that will go door to door and serve each prawn its notice of relocation. Followed by a cameraman and accompanied by a new trainee, as well as a soldier he knows, the foursome start their rounds and discover hidden arms holdings, understanding aliens, hostile aliens, and new technology that can only be nefarious. The opening remarks by interviewees alludes to an incident involving Witkus, one that many can’t believe he partook in, one that may or may not have resulted in his death due to the multiple uses of the past tense. It doesn’t take long before the catalyst to these new feelings of hatred and sorrow for a man loved by all occurs, bringing him into a world of darkness, but also one of understanding—putting his differences aside to work with the aliens. For someone with a clear hatred of the prawn kind, he still sees them as more that just an animal. One can’t deny their intelligence or the fact of their cognitive abilities, making them possibly more advanced than humanity itself.
It is Copley that makes the film what it is through his evolution as a man. The transformation he takes from a weak idealist cowering from the army man who is technically in his control to the confident fighter willing to risk his life for the cause of moral righteousness is unavoidable. You won’t believe at the end when cuts to his later self are juxtaposed with earlier footage before the relocation program that they are the same person. War can do funny things to a man, especially when the sides are blurred and the idea of what’s right and wrong becomes flipped. As his counterpart, however, mention needs to be made for the amazing visual effects. The aliens he encounters are rendered beautifully and fit in their environments as though they are real flesh and blood. Blomkamp even finds room to include one of his Mechwarrior-esque creations as an alien-made suit. These creatures show emotion and seamlessly integrate with the live actors to make the plausibility of everything happening real.
District 9 asks the question of how far we as a race will go for power. If a technology is discovered that is so advanced it can only be used by the enemy, to what lengths can one be willing to live with in order to adopt its use for ourselves? What if one of us is inexplicably turned into a hybrid creature, one with the humanity necessary to fight for good but the biology to use those weapons that are destroying us? Would the government help that person and treat him with respect and worth, or would they look upon him as an abomination, valuable only as a control subject to be poked, prodded, and eventually dismembered in an effort to mass produce? You’d like to think that as a people we have evolved to the point where compassion and understanding can trump any fears and insecurities we may have, but history begs to tell a different story. Throughout time we have oppressed and experienced the drive for power and leadership. By using a legion from another far away planet, Blomkamp has put a mirror up to the world, showing it its true colors. Can a movie make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the political undertones are there to make viewers think afterwards and the action packed journey of a man without a home keeps them in their seats with a riveting and thrilling tale told through a singular vision. See Hollywood? Sometimes fresh new ideas can not only push the limits of the medium, but also become huge critical and financial successes.
District 9 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
[1 & 2] Sharlto Copley in TriStar Pictures’ sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9. Photo By: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures