Neil Blonkcamp’s District 9 is quite the film debut. Part mockumentary, part run-and-gun action film, Blonkamp has created a distinctive and refreshing sci-fi genre mashup that feels both exhilerating and unique. Although thats partly due to its uncommon setting. Is this South Africa’s first science fiction film? Even one of the interviewees at the start of the film expresses a level of surprise when he states that ‘when the aliens arrived, they didn’t come to Manhattan. They came to Johannesburg.’
The opening half hour of the film sets the tone with a mockumentary explaining how twenty years ago, an apparently derilect space craft arrived in South Africa containing alien lifeforms inside. Although they showed signs of intelligence, had superior weaponry and numbered in the millions, the aliens are similar to worker ants and are completely devoid of direction or purpose without a leader.
The aliens are brought down to Earth and eventually segregated into a slum called District 9. There, the aliens, given the derogatory nickname ‘prawn’ by the South Africans, live a wretched existence for twenty years. As District 9 breeds crime, inter-species prostitution and attracts Nigerian militants, they become unwanted by the local residents so a plan is drawn up to forcibly evict them to a far-away District 10, which is not so much a slum as it is a concentration camp. This gigantic task is given to a private corporation, MNU, which has its own vested interest in trying to understand how to use the alien weaponry which is bio-engineered so humans are unable to fire them.
The story then takes focus on a single individual: middle-management schlub Wikus Van De Merwe, who in the fine old tradition of nepotism, becomes promoted because he is married to the bosses’ daughter. For a character who so strongly dominates the screentime in this film, Wikus is a brave choice. On initial impressions, he is deeply unlikable. He is gormless and smarmy. His prejudice towards the aliens clearly has racial parallels and we see the extent to which he devalues their lives in his treatment of the alien young and ultimately, their unborn.
Yet part of what makes District 9 so appealing is how so much of the film is the anti-thesis of a Hollywood production. It takes nothing away from the excellent Star Trek film earlier this year to say that a large part of District 9‘s charm comes from its rougher edges. Although Wikus is quite a dark character, the aliens themselves are also rather unappealing. They seem mostly lazy and stupid. Their appearance is gaunt and awkward. Yet by the end of the film, District 9 will leave you cheering for Wikus and invested in the plight of the aliens. This film is a terrific blend of genres and is a wonderful character piece. As Wikus develops as a character, your expectation and opinion of him also shifts.
District 9 is the result of a failed project between Peter Jackson and Neil Blomkamp who were attempting to make a feature film of the video game franchise Halo. Once that deal fell through, District 9 became the end result. In many ways, District 9 is evocative of the Halo franchise still. The film contains alien weaponry comparable to those in the game, has a reasonably facsimile of the Halo‘s trademark Warthog vehicles and the game title also gets a mention, albeit out of context, in one of the closing lines.
I’m not clear on whether the Halo film will ever get off the ground and if it does, whether Blomkamp and Jackson will be involved. Whoever owns the rights is crazy if they don’t try to get them on board though. District 9 is one of the best science fiction action films I’ve seen in years and marks Blomkamp as a director to watch out for in the future.