The premise for District 9 — even as alien invasion scenarios go — is pretty damn ludicrous. But if you can get past it, and you’re a fan of the Peter Jackson school of over-the-top, shoot-em-up violence, then you stand a good chance of enjoying what’s otherwise a clever and provocative sci-fi thrill machine. Here’s the stretch: A superior alien civilization arrives on Earth in a spaceship large enough to house thousands, or even millions. It conks to a stop above Johannesburg, South Africa.
When humans find that its occupants are ailing or debilitated, they promptly remove and house them in makeshift refugee zones in the city. Soon thereafter, these zones become sprawling, militarized slums, where the aliens (whom we derogatorily call “Prawns”) live in shanties, amidst poverty, corruption and political oppression, segregated from the human population. Off the bat, District 9’s apartheid-informed, sociopolitical allegory comes raging at us full-force with scenes of alien riots and police brutality. Except, these aliens aren’t simple life forms, like bees or ants, as the filmmakers would have us believe; by the magnitude of their advancement — their superior weaponry, physical strength and space-travel technology — we can’t buy that even the Prawns’ version of “worker bees” does not possess the survival instincts to resist and overpower their bullying, would-be human oppressors. What’s weirder, the Prawns trade their hyper-advanced guns (seriously, one shot is all it would take to turn you into a splatter of pasta sauce on the wall) to local Nigerian racketeers for cans of cat food — apparently, the Prawns develop a taste for it (as they do for human prostitutes). At this point, it’s as if Jackson and company dumb-down and degrade their aliens just so their humans will appear more disgusting and oppressive in opposition. By conceding to such absurd, simple-minded ideas, they risk dumbing down their entire, already shaky premise.
All great science-fiction, especially of the “Close Encounters” variety, asks us to question our natures and our place in the universe. Most often, mankind comes up short when faced with the prospect of encountering “the other.” From The Day the Earth Stood Still to Close Encounters, Contact and even The Terminator series, humans usually get suspicious, agitated, devious, or even downright hostile. Though a few individuals in these stories have the sagacity to overcome such base instincts, mankind by and large is depicted as being dominated by them. District 9 lands squarely in that territory as Blomkamp, his co-writer Terri Tatchell and producer Jackson revel in the gross venality and xenophobia of the human species. We’re not far into District 9 before our simmering contempt for our own kind reaches a roiling boil as scenes unravel of armed security forces running havoc in the aliens’ shantytown, badgering and brutalizing them into submitting to government plans to re-locate the Prawns to a new site.
It’s during these eviction operations that District 9 kicks into full gear. When Wikus (Sharlton Copley), a by-the-book bureaucrat in charge of the Prawn re-location scheme, gets exposed to an alien chemical, he finds himself, to much terror and bafflement, turning into a Prawn himself. As a human-Prawn mutant, capable of operating the aliens’ bio-mechanical weaponry, Wikus is suddenly the most highly prized guinea pig in the world. On the run from the military, Wikus holes up in the Prawns’ shantytown and finds his only ally and confidante in the alien’s leader — resourceful, intelligent, and the only one who knows how to restore Wikus to his human state. The leader promises to help Wikus if he, in turn, helps him secure the last bit of technology he needs to render their spaceship operational and, hence, return to the Prawns’ home planet.
What District 9 does exceptionally well — and this is crucial for an action-thriller — is draw the line distinctly between good and evil. In this world, the humans are the villains, and, if you were to judge from District 9, humans have got to be the nastiest, sleaziest life form around, quick to hate, greed, and violence. It makes one wonder how we, as a species, survived as long as we did given the vileness of our nature. As a viewer, I haven’t hated humans this much since Children of Men and, before that, T2: Judgment Day. That clear polarity makes us identify with the aliens that much more, and root for Wikus and his Prawn allies.
The violence here is excessive to the point of being cartoonish — people are blowing up like paintballs left and right — but it’s predicated on such an emotional investment that we want the aliens’ fight against the humans to be as bold and decisive as Blomkamp’s visuals and the digital soundtrack will allow. Indeed, the movie’s final 40 minutes is an extended, Saving Private Ryan-esque action sequence that’s as riveting as they get as Wikus fends off an army of zealous, machine gun-happy troops while his alien comrades set their own plan into motion.
Precision editing and a clever sense of narrative and point-of-view — we’re told the story through a variety of means, from news blurbs (a la Starship Troopers), surveillance cameras, docu-style coverage blended together with more traditional styles — all amp up tension, suspense, and keep us hooked no matter the silliness of the story’s set-up. District 9 doesn’t carry much weight as sociopolitical commentary or satire but, taken on the merits of its shrewd story sense and craftsmanship, it’s a popcorn entertainment destined to stay in our minds. Till the sequel at least.
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvanie Strike, William Allen Young, Vanessa Haywood, Robert Ho