Movie Review: District 9
Aliens and Political Commentary and Realism, Oh My!
My mother always used to ask me to “try walking a mile in his shoes,” but District 9, the first feature-length film from director Neill Blomkamp, asks us to “try walking a mile in his strange crustacean-like hooves.” The brilliant thing about the movie is its REALISM, a word that doesn’t usually go hand-in-hand with the term “Sci-Fi”, but it’s the only way to describe the tone of this film. The fabricated documentary footage combined with the real South African Broadcasting Corporation’s news footage create a palpable tension that traditional cinematic storytelling couldn’t do on it’s own.
As Blomkamp describes it, “Essentially, the film bounces from our story, which is obviously fictional, to a sort of ultra-real mode…The movie fluctuates between something that feels like a film and something that feels bizarrely real.” This combination of documentary-style film work mixed with the top-notch acting of Sharlto Copley and killer special effects has created THE summer movie of 2009 (and all for a measly 30 Million dollars).
The premise of District 9 is simple: More than two decades ago, an alien spacecraft appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. The refugee aliens (or “Prawns,” the derogatory name that humans have given to them) were taken to a makeshift camp that came to be known as District 9 and grew into a segregated slum almost immediately. When the time comes to move the inhabitants of District 9 to a new camp, farther away from the human citizens of Johannesburg, Multi-National United (the private corporation contracted to police District 9, Blackwater-style) sends in field agents to deliver the eviction notices. Wikus van der Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley, is exposed to a mysterious alien substance during a weapon search, and that’s when shit really hits the fan. As fans of Sci-Fi will tell you, you don’t get sprayed in the face with alien goo and then go back to the wife with nothing more than an unpleasant stain on your dress shirt…in Sci-Fi movies your DNA starts to change and you freak out over the monster you’re quickly becoming while desperately trying to figure out how to reverse it!
Although political and social commentary is not unheard of in Sci-Fi movies, District 9 refuses to pull any punches when portraying the racism (or speciesism, which I just googled and found is, in fact, a real term) towards the aliens. It’s no coincidence that the backdrop for this movie is Johannesburg, given South Africa’s apartheid-loving roots. The segregation of the aliens, their treatment, living conditions and lack of legal rights, all hark back to Johannesburg circa 1950… or to America’s Deep South, or Nazi Germany.
Blomkamp, a native of Johannesburg who relocated to Canada when he was eighteen, described his hometown upon his return as “…a place of walled communities, barbed wire, electric fences, closed circuit television cameras, and private security firms. The changes could have made Johannesburg the ugliest city, but I find it visually stimulating and I absolutely love it”. Filming was done in the winter, in order to capture the city at it’s most desolate instead of lush with green spring growth, Johannesburg is shown as an “urban wasteland”. Mixing the reality of Johannesburg with the fictional world of film, the location used for the District 9 area was Tshiawelo, on the outskirts of Soweto. Tshiawelo, a shantytown built on a landfill, was in the process of being torn down after the government moved the residents to subsidized housing. The alien shacks in District 9 were all constructed using the original, demolished shacks from Tshiawelo, saving time and helping to create a more authentic look and feel for the film.
What really makes the film successful is what they left out; you wont see Scarlett Johansson helping to defeat the bad guys and discovering true love under the artistically applied grime. The alien responsible for Wikus’s makeover, called Christopher Johnson in a hilarious jab at the Colonial custom of anglicizing, in no way resembles Jar Jar Binks. At no point is there a slow-motion shot of our hero leaping through the air, guns blazing (The camera work has a guerilla feel to it, and you’ll find yourself wishing you could rewind the action scenes because they happen so fast and goddammit, you want to see that shoot out with the cool alien weaponry again).
District 9 doesn’t answer all of the questions; where did the aliens come from and why? How come all the humans in the movie can understand the alien language? How does alien DNA manage to mutate a human into an alien? While we’ll never know the answers, I was never left feeling unsatisfied by the movie or it’s plot. The questions it asked, and the way it asked them, were thought provoking, entertaining and necessary.
Frothygirlz rating 9/10