District 9 (2009)
Dir. Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James
District 9 is a film that I don’t watch particularly often, but every time I do watch it, I find myself wondering why it’s been so long since my last viewing. It’s a thoughtful, stylish exploration of social themes wrapped up in the guise of a sci-fi action film. It was an instant addition to the sci-fi canon upon its release, loved by critics and audiences alike. It was also one of the few movies that I saw in 2009, a year when I was almost completely disengaged from the cinema after having dropped out of graduate school. After some subsequent legal issues, I found myself changing jobs, fighting with severe depression, and I simply lost interest in going to the movies because they seemed so ancillary to the issues that I was dealing with in my own life. District 9 didn’t entirely reawaken my serious interest in movies, but seeing it on Christmas day that year did remind me that watching a good movie can be a soothing and restorative experience. Spending a couple of hours in this alternate version of South Africa, one which is inhabited by strange space aliens, was just what I needed at the time, and I find a similar sense of comfort every time I watch this movie.
In the film, an alien spacecraft arrives on Earth in 1982, and begins hovering over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. After some time with no successful attempts to communicate with the spaceship, and with the world’s population fervently awaiting first contact, an investigation team cracks the ship’s hull, revealing a crew of sick and dying alien lifeforms. These aliens, derisively called “prawns,” are corralled by the South African government into a slum outside of Johannesburg, referred to as District 9, where they live in an uneasy and tenuous peace with their terrestrial neighbors. After nearly 30 years of this uncomfortable arrangement, the South African government hires a private security corporation, Multinational United, to relocate the aliens to a different internment camp, further away from human civilization. Leading up the relocation effort is Wikus van de Merwe (Copley), a bumbling bureaucrat placed into a job he’s totally unsuited for by his father-in-law, who happens to be the head of MNU. During the relocation effort, Wikus meets Christopher James (Cope), an alien who, along with his young son and friend, has been stashing away alien technology for 20 years, hoping to one day repair the mothership and return to his home planet to lead a rescue mission for the rest of his kind stranded on Earth. During a search of Christopher’s home, Wikus finds a canister of fuel that Christopher and his friend have been distilling from their scavenged materials, which he confiscates. However, when trying to open the canister, Wikus accidentally sprays himself in the face with the fuel, which immediately begins to have a violent effect on his physical person. Wikus quickly realizes that his exposure to the black liquid is causing his human tissue to be replaced by alien tissue, and that he is gradually transforming into a prawn. When his condition becomes public, Wikus becomes a figure of universal scorn, while also being hunted by MNU mercenaries, who are hoping to capture him and study the only existing human/prawn hybrid. Wikus is forced to return to District 9 and seek out Christopher, hoping to find answers about his condition.
I think that my favorite thing about District 9 is Blomkamp’s choice to present his story in a pseudo-documentary style. This grounds the film’s fantasy premise in a realistic setting, giving us all the tropes of a nonfiction film, and also allows an unfettered amount of access to the few central characters in the film. By framing the narrative as a documentary, we get early moments of Wikus performing for the documentary camera crew, revealing key pieces of the character’s personality. The style makes the film feel ripped from the headlines while it’s obviously dealing with a farfetched science fiction premise. This verisimilitude is reinforced because not only is there a documentary crew filming the process of the relocation of the prawns outside of District 9, but several later developments in the film are revealed through news broadcasts, screens, and security camera footage. I’m often skeptical of films that try to bridge the gap between found footage, documentary, and narrative filmmaking, because often the narrative device is stretched beyond the point of plausibility or just used as a gimmick, but Blomkamp does a great job of walking the tight rope and meshing the film’s disparate styles together.
The other aspect of District 9 that keeps me wanting to watch it over and over again are the great performances by Copley and Cope as Wikus and Christopher, respectively. The movie was Copley’s feature debut, and his performance as Wikus catapulted him into international stardom. As the film’s only non-alien protagonist, and as the subject of the faux-documentary that is being shot, Wikus is in nearly every scene in the film, and Copley rises to the occasion admirably. He is at times funny, pitiful, sad, and fearsome, as he turns himself into a reluctant warrior by the film’s end. The range that he shows in the film is impressive, providing genuine humor with the early portions of the film requiring a slapstick type of performance while later scenes find Copley evoking deep pathos as he portrays Wikus’s gradual understanding of the plight of the aliens whom he had never considered before. Copley became the film’s breakout star, but I think that Cope’s performance as Christopher is equally as memorable, in a much different way. Cope did the voice work for all of the prawns in the film, and the series of clicks, whistles, and skittering noises that they produce is actually emotive, even divorced from the context of the film’s subtitles. His performance as Christopher Johnson is the film’s emotional center for me, and it’s impressive that an actor can convey that level of emotional commitment while performing as a CGI character. Christopher Johnson feels every bit as real, and deserves every bit of pathos and sympathy that Wikus does, and Cope’s mostly improvised performance is to credit for that.
I think that District 9 is one of the more emotionally resonant science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, and I imagine that that is likely due to its obvious close association with the actual political history of South Africa. The film is a clear allegory for Apartheid, the legislated, state-sanctioned brand of segregation that was law in South Africa for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The prawns are very obviously stand ins for black South Africans, who were subjugated under minority rule by white South Africans until the early 1990s. The political practice had its roots in Dutch colonial rule of South Africa, and the descendants of the colonizers simply continued enforcing this form of white supremacy through legal actions and force, when necessary. Blomkamp’s personal history growing up in the final years of Apartheid undoubtedly had an influence on District 9. Though they’re shown to be mistreated by both white and black characters alike, the othering of the prawns has a distinctly racial feel to it, and though the film’s message could be applied generally and broadly to any class or racial divisions among society, its context as the work of a South African filmmaker make its cultural allusions obvious. While it would stand out as a great modern sci-fi film based on its intriguing premise, great effects and action sequences, and memorable aliens alone, the real world resonance of District 9’s narrative with the recent history of South Africa gives the work that much more artistic integrity, and pushes it over the top into “great film” territory.
While Neill Blomkamp’s stock may not be as high now as it was after the release of District 9, with his proposed Alien spinoff series never coming to fruition and his subsequent films suffering both critical and commercial failure, District 9 still stands out as one of the early 21st century’s great films. Its successes have bought Blomkamp enough good will with me that I’ll consider his next film or two must see material unless they disappoint me as much as Chappie did. I’m even still holding out some hope that the sequel to District 9 that Blomkamp has teased at various times may eventually appear. But even if it doesn’t, and if Blomkamp doesn’t fulfill on the promise of his debut, nothing can diminish the initial rush that I felt on first seeing District 9. It was such a fun and original premise, presented in an action style that seemed both over the top and practical. The film’s world was engaging, both familiar and alien, but overall wholly formed. It arrived at my life at a perfect time, when I needed to remember the entertainment and distraction that a really good movie can provide, and I’m reminded of that every time I pull it off the shelf for a rewatch.