So, Friday the 14th (sounds ominous) I went to the Dentist (sounds ominous) and was asked to go see a film with my wife and kid called District 9 (which... sounded ominous). So I cancelled that Library Food Fight I had been planning and slouched toward Foothill Ranch to check out that very flick (and, if I was lucky, start a food fight there).
Well, the food fight never happened, but District 9 most certainly kicked an entire ghetto full of ass. See, on the surface what you've got is a sci-fi horror flick about extra-terrestrials on Earth, relegated to a slum and not particularly liking it too much. The fact that this particular Hooverville just happens to be in Johannesburg, South Africa pretty much means that you're dealing with a big, sparking allegory about Apartheid, right? Yeah, that sounds as heavy-handed as a guy with Hulk-Gloves made of rebar-laced granite, doesn't it?
Well, luckily it's not. Actually District 9 is a smart film from director Neil Blomkamp, who based his screenplay (written with Terri Tatchell) on his own 2005 short film Alive in Joburg. Throw in a roster of producers that peaks out with the names Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson and chances are the film is going to be worth watching.
Interestingly enough, the star-power ends with the producers' credits, as the film is packed with unknown actors. This, of course, makes perfect sense, seeing as how District 9 is that modern answer to the "Epistolary Novel", the Cinema Verite semi-mockumentary. Much of the film consists of the kind of interviews one might find in a History Channel Documentary, discussing the history of the Alien problem with a focus on what happened one particularly fateful day. And, of course, metaphor drips from the film throughout its entire 112 minute runtime. On the way out of the theatre I slipped in a big-ass puddle of metaphor, which had pooled just under the screen. I'm telling you, District 9 is SOAKED in it!
The documentary aspect of the film fills us in on the story's alternative history. Apparently a big honkin' spacey spaceship pulls a V and floats its way down to the Johannesburg skyline and just, kind of, sits there. But instead of being packed with hungry humanoid lizards or evil Earth-wrecking monsters (like in ID-4), the ship is packed with malnourished worker-aliens who seem to pose almost as much threat to the survival of the human race as the complete collection of "Cathy" comic strips. So what initially looked like an Alien Invasion soon becomes a rescue mission, which quickly turns into a refugee situation, which, in turn, becomes a slum/ subculture social issue.
In that this particular incident happened over Johannesburg back in 1982 and the film-proper takes place in 2010, it's easy to see that the "Prawns" (as they have been derogatorily labeled) have been a world problem for quite some time. Their numbers have jumped from a million to almost two million and their assimilation into society has, quite simply, never happened. They still live in their slum, which is getting dilapidated. They don't hold down proper jobs and can't seem to understand the concepts of human property or economics. What's more, as worker-bees for whatever society they came from, they have certain amounts of technical knowledge (like the ability to create awesome weapons). However, their technology is partially controlled by their DNA, so humans can't do Jack Q. Shit with it!!!
Naturally, where there is a ghetto there is crime and a whole gang of Nigerian Gangsters are just chomping at the bit do real bad things with the Prawns. Meanwhile, the company assigned to keep them in line, "Multi-National United" (or "MNU"), is about to evict and re-locate the entire population from their shanty-town (called, of course, "District 9") to a shiny new concentration camp (dick move) farther away from Joburg!
And the MNU Goof who is in charge of it all? Ineffectual Middle-Management Suck Up Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who got the job, primarily, because he happens to be married to the boss' daughter. Wikus' somewhat cold, officious methods of eviction are turned upside down when he finds himself faced with the strange, frightening realities of harsh military logic and the humanity (and/ or Human Rights) of non-humans. Lest this suddenly become some preach fest, let me tell you, this is nothing if not shocking, horrific and action packed, especially when the revelations of hybridization (which is so desired by anyone wishing to harness or use Prawn Technology) comes to light. Further, the "opportunity" to see how the other half lives is thrown out there like a grenade and somebody's got to land on it, or else, folks, we won't have a movie, am I right?
Let me answer that for you... Yeah, I am!
Naturally, Grenades aren't what will pacify the Prawns... though there is one thing that will... amazingly that one thing is canned cat food, which the Prawns consider much more than a delicacy... almost a drug. This makes it all the more humorous that the last thing I did before watching District 9 was to go pick up some canned cat food for Baddie and Worsie (no food fight, by the way).
One reason the Prawns seem so really and fleshed out is that the CGI here (performed by Weta and some other firms) is excellent. In that the film's cinema verite (though not overdone) realism grants a somewhat grainy and first-person experience, the fact that the Prawns look real and fully realized is a necessary and perfect piece of the puzzle. The first step appears to have been to make them look fully Alien, humanoid, but anything-but-human... and then to pull them back to the known with expressions and desires that show familiar emotions and make them realistic(!) characters.
This is specifically displayed in the Prawn character with the Anglicized name of "Christopher Johnson". At no point is "Chris" made out to be anything he's not, nor is he either lionized or demonized in any way... however, this is a well-rounded, alien character whose gritty reality both displays his unique oddity and strange familiarity at the same time.
District 9 works so well as an allegory because of the fact that it is very clear what is being said here, but never is the message delivered with a sledgehammer. That said, this is a very action-packed film with some decidedly far-fetched Science Fiction, lots of blood and gore and plenty of horrific moments the likes of which are handled much more amateurishly in the recent crop of American "Body Horror" experiments. The good guys here have their bad streaks, the bad guys are never all bad and the science fiction as "out of this world" as it truly, truly is, somehow feels very real and credible. It takes a certain kind of filmmaker to pull something as amazing as that off, and luckily Blomkamp is just the man for that job.
While occasionally, the shift between documentary highlights and omniscient filmic narration can sometimes be less-than-seamless, the film captures the right pace and the seams quickly disappear. This is true for the rest of the film's few flaws as well. Luckily, due to the engrossing story and never overdone "Documentary Style" filmmaking, District 9 is ultimately a great success worth at least Four Stars out of Five! Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to feed these Bengal Cats here. They keep meowing for some kind of shrimp to eat, so I angrily called them a couple of Racists and slammed the door on them. See you freedom fighters in the next reel.
I have to wonder if the idea of Alien Decapods
Came from the character of "Pepe the King Prawn"
From Muppets from Space!
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