‘District 9’ is in the upper echelon of science-fiction films with a message, a moral, and a mech suit
2009, South Africa/New Zealand
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Thatchell
Starring Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood, William Allen Young, Andre Odendaal
Generally speaking, I don’t like to be lectured. It brings back painful memories of my childhood, when my father would continually admonish me for being untidy, killing the family pets, and digging up my dead sister for Saturday night ‘dates.’ I especially dislike preaching about race relations, because ever since flipping past The O’Reilly Factor while channel surfing, I’ve become convinced that only communist agitators and terrorists complain about racism. But I’ll make a special exception for director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, because it mixes its didactic moralizing with giant bugs and the mechanized body armour from Robot Jox.
The film, Blomkamp’s first feature, is an obvious but nevertheless effective metaphor for South Africa’s apartheid past, or Gaza’s present. It takes place in a Johannesburg slum, where crustacean-like aliens have been sequestered since their mysterious arrival on Earth over two decades ago. Their horrific living conditions, which essentially involves eating tins of cat food in shacks seemingly decorated with the defecate of abattoir rats, inspire frequent rioting and criminal activity. Those Nigerians who send emails about laundering money? They’ve given up struggling with spell check and now run guns in District 9. And MNU, the agency in charge of the aliens is more interested in the aliens’ weaponry than their welfare.
Partially shot in a mockumentary style, District 9 follows Wikus Van De Merwe, an MNU employee tasked with relocating the aliens from their current slum to a brand new one with a colour scheme slightly less reminiscent of rotted offal. But after spraying himself in the face with a mysterious chemical, Van De Merwe finds himself slowly transforming into one of the creatures.
Yes, this storyline does sound like it was lifted one of the more pompous episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or an after-school special written by an AV club. But for the most part, Blomkamp doesn’t allow the script’s moralizing to interfere with the excitement. With the exception of a few shaky sequences early in the film, Blomkamp keeps the story moving, spicing up every scene with astounding special effects and harshly realistic set design.
As Van De Merwe, Sharlto Copley is a revelation, turning in a nearly flawless performance. However, the character is written to be so unlikeable that it’s sometimes a strain to care about him, even when he turns inside out and scaly, like a lobster with hemorrhagic fever. And while Blomkamp is remarkably assured for a first time feature director, he does allow District 9 to slip into standard sci-fi fare in the final third, all holograms and spaceships and guys in body armour who grew up watching Aliens on repeat. But while the preaching does get a touch old, and the film a bit simplistic towards the end, District 9 is in the upper echelon of science-fiction films with a message, a moral, and a mech suit.
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures.