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TBTS Reviews: District 9

August 15, 2009

This review contains no major spoilers.

We should count ourselves lucky that Neill Blomkamp built his 2005 short Alive In Joburg into the full-length District 9.  The 29-year-old South African director has taken the still-fresh topic of racism in post-Apartheid South Africa and shaped it into a thought-provoking and entertaining film.

District 9 takes place in contemporary Johannesburg, South Africa, where about 20 years ago a gigantic disabled extraterrestrial craft came to rest and has hovered, silent and motionless, since.  The ship held about a million alien creatures derisively called “prauns” (I don’t think we hear them referred to as anything but), who were corralled into slums then walled off when violence escalated in and around this area, called District 9.  These events are retold in documentary fashion with low-fi on-camera interviews, news clips, and shaky amateur footage to get the viewer up to speed.  The movie then picks up in the present, with the forthcoming eviction of all residents from D9 and their relocation to a “better” place outside city limits.

The government has hired corporate giant Multi-National United to execute the move, which will be supervised by recently-promoted Wikus Van De Merwe, who just happens to be married to the boss’s daughter.  The film takes off after Van De Merwe has an accident during one of the evictions, becomes ill, and finds himself the target of a furious manhunt.  This forces him to work with the prauns he was uprooting days before, and may even help them leave the planet.  You’ll discover that describing Van De Merwe as a dynamic character, a changed man, is a drastic understatement.

Blomkamp doesn’t deal too subtly with MNU’s dehumanization of the aliens because he doesn’t have to: they aren’t human.  They are oppositely-jointed, antennae-sporting, insectile extraterrestrials.  His genius lies in making them humanoid enough (bipedal; binocular; and possessing human-like emotion, facial expression, and family structure) to permit sympathy.  In fact, the most sympathetic—and “human”—character is an alien given the anglicized name Christopher Johnson.  Separated from “polite” society, the aliens are mostly poor, uneducated, and forced to scrounge for food and useful objects.  Sound familiar?  There are places like this in Brazil, Africa, India, and other places right now.  When Blomkamp makes you bristle at how unfairly some of the prauns are treated, he’s really hinting that you should feel the same way about how we presently treat, or allow to be treated, fellow humans.  D9’s interspecial interaction serves to highlight our own (and South Africa’s, in particular) racist past, and how easy it would be commit such mistakes again out of fear, misunderstanding, and just plain ignorance.

It’s not only aliens who live in the slums, though.  Nigerian gangsters there exploit the prauns’ addiction to cat food by trading it for superior alien weaponry.  However, these arms will fire only when held by an alien, which is why both the Nigerians and MNU have been attempting, unsuccessfully, to integrate human and alien DNA.  The Nigerians are brutal and barbaric, but at least honest in their goal; the film makes sure the viewer knows that MNU, with its Mengele-esque research and mostly white mercenaries, are no different, just better funded.

The movie’s technical aspects accent its themes well.  The photography and camera work, while a bit schizophrenic in their jumps from documentary to news footage to black-and-white security cam to regular film stock, give the movie enough verite feel to get the message across.  The slum setting did not portray the poverty and overcrowding as well as The Constant Gardener, but was still well-conceived and well-constructed.  (Although, Gardener dealt more with the human plight in Africa and the West’s complicity in creating such conditions, which was not D9‘s focus.)  Not least, the special effects for a movie with a $30 million budget should satisfy both the sci-fi and action fan.

The movie definitely has its faults, sinking too deeply into cliché at times: the buddy cop dialogue near the end (“I’m not going to leave you,” “I’ll come back for you, I promise,”); the married Van De Merwe couple’s laughing outgoing answering machine message; the disorienting camera cant and slowed down ambient audio to indicate Van De Merwe’s illness.  Important parts of the film center on a precocious alien child who somehow knows how to operate technology that has never been activated in his lifetime.  I also question the use of incorrect grammar in the subtitles to (presumably) differentiate intelligence levels among individual aliens.  These are minor missteps, though, in an otherwise great film.

While District 9 isn’t the first movie to deal with extraterrestrial integration into human society (think Alien Nation), it is perhaps the most thoughtful.  This has been a great summer for first-time sci-fi directors, with Duncan Jones’ Moon and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.  I love big, dumb summer blockbusters like Transformers 2, but it’s refreshing to see young directors put unique visions on the screen.  Gentlemen, please don’t wait too long to put out your next ones.

2 Comments
  1. August 26, 2009 12:46 am

    D-9 definitely has a lot going for it — character development, great acting a at least a few people, awesome alien weapons; it felt a bit preachy at times at different times though

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