Dir: Neill Blomkamp
District 9, an allegorical tale camouflaging the evils of South African apartheid under the shell of a sci-fi action film, contains a 15 minute sequence that could be one of the most original and compelling in recent years. This debut feature by director Neill Blomkamp (and bearing a heavy stamp from producer Peter Jackson) is shot and set in Johannesburg where, 20 years ago, a shipload of aliens arrived malnourished and unable to leave. As Blomkamp narrates the backstory via faux archival news footage, taped interviews and “found” loops from security cameras, he nimbly creates an alternate society where humans and aliens (derogatorily dubbed “prawns”) must co-exist with fraught tension that is capable of erupting into violence at any moment. Unfortunately, that amazing 15 minute sequence comprises District 9’s opening scenes, an incredible first salvo the rest of the film is unable to follow.
There is something sinisterly familiar as District 9 reveals that the aliens have been relegated to townships outside of the city. These ghettos are fenced in and each alien is given a new, Anglo name and marked with a white identity stamp on its head. In these townships, the aliens are kept at bay by an addiction to cat food and exploited by black mercenaries who revel in the chaotic lawlessness. For those who are familiar with South Africa’s shameful history, an immediate parallel will be drawn to the racial separation that tore the country apart from 1948 to 1994.
We soon meet the film’s unwitting protagonist, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an operative for Multi-National United, a private organization that wants to learn about and control alien weapon technology. Wikus, a mostly odious and weasel-like guy, has just been promoted to oversee the relocation of all aliens to the even more remote District 10. Blomkamp establishes Wikus, who speaks in a thin Afrikaans accent, as a spineless bully who is disliked by his father-in-law (a higher-up at MNU) and not respected by MNU’s private military contractors. But Wikus unwittingly stumbles upon an alien escape plot and he soon becomes not only the target of mercenaries, but MNU who realizes he can be a valuable asset to its research program.
District 9 rose from the ashes of an aborted “Halo” film and as it becomes little more than a chase film in its second half, the influences of that video game are clear. Bodies detonate in blood-splattered explosions or vaporize instantly from one burst of alien weaponry. Yes, it’s entertaining, but after that crucial opening it’s disappointing to see the film devolve into a standard government paranoia thriller. Perhaps it’s my own bias, but to see a movie that begins utterly original morph into the body horror of The Fly and the xenophobic tendencies of an Alien Nation meets Parallax View mash-up complete with cardboard goons and heartless executives is a let-down. But for those who are looking for explosions and neat weapons, District 9 is still better than most summer blockbuster fare out there.
Perhaps the best thing about the film (save the opening) is Copley’s performance. Self-serving and craven, his Wikus echoes South Africa’s racist policies in his initial dehumanizing treatment of the aliens. Unfortunately, the racial divide is where District 9 also fails. Most of its black characters are mindless thugs who live in self-imposed poverty within the alien community, whoring themselves out and espousing primitive beliefs such as great power can be derived from eating the flesh of the aliens. Though none of the characters in District 9 are particularly likable, the white characters aren’t relegated into believing in magic allowing District 9 to unwittingly prolong the racist heritage it so adamantly rails against.
That said it is admirable that Blomkamp and Jackson have created an action film with substance. The special effects, completely rendered in CGI, are among the best I’ve seen to date and gleaning empathy for both Wikus and the aliens is quite a feat. It is without a doubt that District 9 will be a hit. The first 15 minutes certainly were with me.