Neill Blomkamp gets his first shot as a major feature director, thanks to Peter Jackson, with a sci-fi movie based upon a short film he had previously made.
Imagine aliens have landed on earth and they happen to hit Johannesburg. Only these aliens aren’t here to invade or teach us the errors of our ways…they are essentially refugees. Interned in a camp (the eponymous District 9), the aliens become a huge welfare headache for the government. Seemingly unfit for any integration with the human race, the camp quickly becomes a shanty town for exploitation and crime. The aliens, dubbed “prawns” by humans, do have advanced technology, especially weapons, so private companies do have an interest in District 9. In particular, confiscating and attempting to use the weapons, as this holds massive potential revenue. One hitch to that plan is that the weapons only work when connected to an alien.
Wikus Van De Merwe is your archetypal office guy. He’s the boss’s son-in-law and he finds himself suddenly promoted to a new initiative to evict all of the aliens in District 9 and move them to the new District 10. This involves much door to door calling, as each resident must sign their approval to the move. It is here where Wikus Van De Merwe’s adventure begins…
Blomkamp deals with what could be a complex set up by providing the back story to the aliens’ arrival using various news reports from the time. This is then interspersed with interviews with people who know/knew Wikus. Not only does this serve to inform us of what has happened so far, it also sows the seeds for what is to come. The movie continues very much in the same vein, using a good mix of documentary, CCTV and faux news reports to help push the narrative along with regular movie footage, i.e. not presented as another medium. Initially, this gave me the impression of watching a particularly bizarre version of Touching the Void or a futuristic episode of 999. But, as the film progresses, the gimmicks become less obvious and the story takes over.
Apparently, Blomkamp intended the movie to be an analogy on his own experiences during the reign of apartheid in South Africa. Because the movie is such a good sci-fi action movie, a lot of the inherent racism towards the aliens could get lost. But, the interviews and the interaction with the aliens does provide excellent illustrations of how a race that perceives themselves to be the top of the food chain could be so dismissive of another race: forming stereotypes, nicknames, exploiting and confining to particular areas for their own kind. And, let us remember, these times were not so long ago, and in some places still exist, were you to replace the aliens with another human race.
The movie works well as a reflection upon a period of time and attitudes that we all hope are long behind us. And it also works well as an action movie. In a twist of fate, born of so many action/buddy movies, Wikus finds himself in need of the help of an alien and his son and they form an unlikely alliance to both help Wikus out of his predicament and of the aliens and there’s.
As Wikus, Sharlto Copley, is a revelation. He brings the right balance of humour, awkwardness and eventual determination so that, despite reservation about him to begin with, we root for him. This is Copley’s first movie, aside from featuring in the original short, and he effortlessly provides us with a character that is real. A massive achievement when you consider he was acting with CGI much of the time. Time will tell if this is his one defining moment, see him soon as “Howling Mad” Murdoch in the upcoming A-Team movie.
And of Blomkamp? He has proven with the support and budget offered by Peter Jackson, that he can not only write and direct a fine movie; he can create a vision in which to tell the story. As yet, there is no word on what Blomkamp’s next step will be. But, like Copley, expectation will be high based upon this movie.
My rating: 4/5