Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9 (2009)

Years ago, when an alien spaceship arrived to Earth and hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa, people rejoiced, but as the weeks dragged by without sign of life, the government stepped in to force their way into the alien spacecraft. Inside, they found a race of aliens that were malnourished and injured. In a rare show of humanity the government decided to care for these refugee aliens.

Though no one knew what brought the aliens to Earth, their ship was inoperable, so they were stuck here. After a period of alien acceptance, there was soon a backlash against the none-too-intelligent “prawns” as the aliens were derogatorily nicknamed. The public wanted them off the streets, so MNU (Multi-National United, a company put in charge of the visitors) segregated them in District 9, which soon devolved into a slum, complete with Nigerian gangsters running a racket of prostitution, illegal weaponry and cat food (pretty much the only thing the aliens like to eat).

Neither the government nor the public was interested in what went on in District 9 as long as the “prawns” stayed separated from the humans. The government and MNU (who also happened to be one of the largest weaponry manufacturers) were more interested in the aliens’ weaponry capabilities than for their well-being. The aliens’ weapons only worked for aliens and not for humans, so MNU went to great lengths to learn the secrets of their weapons. In fact, deep within the bowels of MNU, experiments were conducted  where aliens were dissected to try and find out just how their weapons worked.

In the outside world, there was still a public outcry to get the aliens out of the city, but with the government still keenly interested in the alien’s weapon technology, MNU decides to “relocate” the aliens to an area far outside the city. MNU worker Wikus Van De Werwe (Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of the relocation process, and a camera crew follows the twitchy man around as he serves eviction notices to the aliens in District 9. As Wikus delivers the eviction papers and treats the aliens like an inferior race, even gleefully torching one shack where their young are being hatched, the film cuts back and forth between this footage to interviews with people Wikus knew, all hinting at something unthinkable and treacherous that Wikus did.
I won’t say much more than that for fear of giving too much away, but let’s just say that Wikus finds himself feeling sympathetic towards the aliens in the end.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in the world of District 9. First, let me address the socio-political undertones of the film, all are which pretty heavy but don’t weigh the film down. Of course, there is the obvious location of South Africa with its history of apartheid, which was “a political system in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s that separated the different peoples living there and gave privileges to those of European origin.” It also brings to mind the segregation of blacks in the United States after the Civil War and up until the Civil Right’s movement, especially if you’ve seen the marketing materials designating certain areas as “human only”. Not only that, but it echoes more recent issues, like some people’s contempt for illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. or the mass of migration of refugees and immigrants into other countries. The treatment of the aliens in the film is akin to many of these past and present circumstances – the aliens are abused, called derogatory names, exploited, used, and people want them out of their cities and to go back home. The aliens might not be the smartest or prettiest creatures, but as the film progresses you begin to feel sorrier and sorrier for them, not to mention ashamed of the human race.

On the flip side, you have the bumbling human “hero”, Wikus Van De Werwe, who only does what he does to save himself. Though at the end of the film you see him become truly heroic (though most humans in the film would beg otherwise) and actually do the right thing, most of the time he is selfish and cowardly. He is quite a contrast the main alien in the film, who is just trying to get himself and his son home safe. Again, you feel much more sympathetic to the aliens in the film than you do the humans. You can’t help but root for “Christopher” (the name MNU assigned this alien) throughout the film! Writers Neill Blomkamp (who also directed) and Terri Tatchell have really given us some food for thought with District 9 and touched on some very important and relevant issues.

The direction by Blomkamp is inventive as well. The earlier parts of the film play like a documentary, with a camera crew following Wikus around MNU headquarters and in District 9. There are also well-used security camera shots that fit quite well into the overall proceedings. The last part of the film loses the reality TV feel, but the naturalistic camera movements (yes, there is some shaky-cam) keep the audience in the moment!

Of course, this being a Peter Jackson production and a sci-fi action film, there is plenty of splatterific fun! Now, this isn’t anything like Starship Troopers, so don’t expect a bunch of aliens attacking humans being blow up into smithereens, but District 9 has its fair share of gory scenes. When the aliens’ weapons are utilized, plenty of “prawns” and humans get vaporized, leaving behind only chunks of bloody grue. The last part of the film is edge-of-your-seat action, with very cool use of the large robot weapon that is controlled by an alien on the inside! I also must mention the amazing looking aliens, who are mostly all CGI. They look entirely realistic and fit seamlessly into their environment, whether they are foraging for food, being interrogated, fighting back or scheming how to go back home.

District 9 is a unique sci-fi classic in the making. Its relevant and original story, conflicted characters and its harsh look at the human race, not to mention stunning special FX and moments of over-the-top gore, make it a must-see film! If you are looking for a summer movie that offers a lot of heart, depth and social awareness along with its frenetic action, head to District 9!

Available from Amazon!

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