If you’re still having doubts about whether you should see last weekend’s top movie, the science-fiction thriller District 9, I’m here to tell you that it’s a must-see film — that is, if you have the stomach for a little gore and a lot of soul searching.
In a summer filled with transforming robots, heroic Joes, and kid wizards, District 9 stands out as something far more remarkable than your typical alien movie. Unlike Independence Day and Invasion, this movie is not about aliens exterminating humans and taking over the world. Instead, the aliens are a minority group and humans are the villains.
The movie takes place a few decades after aliens have come to Earth. Your first clue that this one’s going to be different is that their massive spaceship descends upon Johannesburg, South Africa — not one of the usual American cities that seem to have a monopoly on extraterrestrial visitors. This gives the film a layer of realism that’s missing from most recent sci-fi releases.
The alien ship eerily hovers over Johannesburg, undisturbed for three months, until a team of human scientists open it up. What they find is a multitude of aliens who are disoriented, malnourished, and stranded. In response, the humans feed the creatures, who are referred to as “prawns” (a derogatory term comparing them to bottom-feeders), and settle them as refugees in a camp called District 9. Over the years, tensions rise between the prawns and humans, and District 9 is transformed into a slum with over 2 million alien inhabitants.
Eventually, humans can no longer tolerate the prawns, and Multi-National United (MNU), a company interested in mastering the aliens’ technology with no regard for the aliens’ welfare, is contracted to evict the aliens to another location miles away from humankind. MNU field operative Wikus van der Merwe, who is sympathetic and naïve about many things, including his own prejudice and racism, is chosen to lead this daunting task of serving the prawns with their eviction notices.
Confused and frightened, the prawns become hostile and some are killed. In the process, Merwe contracts a strange virus that mutates his DNA with those of the prawns, and he experiences grotesque physical changes. Soon he is hunted by MNU and abandoned by his friends and family. His only hope lies within the barbed fences of District 9.
Partly shot as a documentary and a CNN-type report, the film handles its themes with maturity, especially in the realistic portrayal of how the aliens are discriminated against. Many of the human characters in the film are ruthless and corrupt with no respect for life, whether it is human or alien. What makes this so disturbing is that this is not an unfair portrayal of humankind. People do this every day to other people.
Another strong element of the movie is the depth of the alien characters. The prawns are not one-dimensional, man-killing creatures. Instead, they have personalities, desires, and emotions, which make them just as “human” as humans, if not more so. They may not be as cuddly as E.T. or ALF, but they aren’t obnoxious ploys for comic relief like Jar Jar Binks.
By having a cast of relatively unknown actors, the film places the aliens and the humans on a more even playing field. Audiences don’t have a studly Will Smith or a stunning Megan Fox to root for, which means it’s anyone’s game. Actor Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus, does a superb job of juggling the emotions and turmoil of his character.
Like any good story, District 9 has plenty of contrasts to engage audiences. Wikus starts out as an enemy of the prawns, but then he starts to become one of them against his free will. As a result, humans become his enemies. This role reversal challenges the protagonist and the audience to see things from another perspective. Overall, the plot is solid and original and breaks new ground in the sci-fi genre.
Neill Blomkamp, the film’s South African writer/director, and producer Peter Jackson, the New Zealand native who directed the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, transplant the U.F.O. genre both geographically and intellectually, turning their film into a narrative that’s at once more plausible and relevant to real-life concerns.
Nothing is said specifically about the film’s setting or South Africa’s obvious history with apartheid, but Blomkamp no doubt places his story there to subtly represent the reality of prejudice and injustice that plagues all humanity. The locale also provides plenty of open space for the humans to create District 9 and the other more isolated internment camp.
And don’t think that just because this movie tackles weighty social issues means that it’s also boring or slow. It’s not. There is plenty of action — chase scenes, “ticking bombs,” and explosions. The film earns its R rating for bloody violence and intense language. Characters get annihilated and guts splatter through the air onto the camera lens (no joke). But none of it seems overly excessive. The action, along with the special effects (which are employed sparingly), are effective without overshadowing the characters or story. District 9 is a blockbuster with a brain. If you go, prepare to be challenged as well as entertained.