A vast alien spaceship arrives and parks itself high in the air over… Johannesburg. And then, nothing happens. After about 3 months the humans get impatient and break into the ship to find a couple of million aliens in need of rescue. So, they bring them down to the city, but they turn out to be rather a rootless, aimless bunch of criminals and losers and cause so much hassle with the local population that the aliens end up being coralled in a ghetto, called District 9.
That’s the premise of this 2009 sci-fi film by Neill Blomkampp and Terri Tatchell (with Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame as an executive producer). And for once, the term ‘sci-fi’ is accurate, because this isn’t just a normal Hollywood action film in sci-fi dressing, this is proper science fiction for once. By that I mean that the story is a subversive look at a possible future for humanity – which is what real science fiction is supposed to do. In this case, the future being looked at is what happens if humanity can’t control its over-exploitation of the Earth’s resources: will we end up with a small super-rich elite living in gated and heavily guarded communities, and everybody else living in foul slums like Johannesburg’s Soweto (where this was largely filmed)? In this film, the aliens stand in for the poor.
The acting in this film is exceptional, especially that of the star, Sharlto Copley, who plays the reluctant hero Wikus Van De Merwe, a very ordinary guy – stupid, selfish, cowardly and prejudiced – placed in charge of managing the eviction of the aliens from District 9 because the authorities (MNU, an evil military corporation, basically) wants to move them 200km out of the city and well out of everybody’s way. Much of the film is shot in handheld documentary style, as the idea is that as Wikus goes about his business, a documentary is being made. So as he goes about his business he is talking to the camera, explaining what he’s doing, being embarrassed as he makes mistakes, and so on. As a novice, he glances at the crew behind the camera too, just as a not-too-clever newbie might in this situation.
He’s a reluctant hero because he doesn’t care for the welfare of the aliens at all, really: he is only concerned with his own situation. However it all goes wrong for him and he ends up having to ally himself with a rather smart alien called Christopher in an attempt to steal some alien gunge from MNU. You see, he gets infected by some advanced alien… stuff… and begins to turn into an alien. For a prejudiced man like Wikus, this is perhaps even worse than it would be for most. The alien, for his part, wants the gunge so he can power-up the crippled alien starship and get the heck out of this slum.
So what we have here, as well as the science-fiction angle, is a personal, psychological angle. Wikus is a rather low type of human being, but as it turns out, the alien is of the noble variety. We can see them as two sides of the same person: Wikus the conscious side is a selfish coward, but as he slowly transforms into an alien, his superior inner nature, represented by the alien Christopher (Christ) gradually comes out. So Wikus loses his humanity in order to find it…
It goes without saying, of course, that there’s a racial angle to this film too. Set in post apartheid South Africa, it could hardly be avoided, and the bureaucratic way it is implemented in this movie rings true, along with the way Wikus lectures the camera and his black assistants about what “the Prawn” needs, wants, should do, etc. But rather than saying how bad the racism under apartheid was, the film is more importantly saying that it is still with us: humans are still the same. As filming began, there were riots in Johannesburg with South African blacks burning and killing Zimbabwean refugees. Nigerians have a rather bad reputation down there (and elsewhere) too. And we should not forget just who the aliens really are in South Africa.
A film like this naturally has to have a ton of CGI and it is done extremely well. Not only that, but the director doesn’t dwell on it – there are no time-wasting gee-whizz shots. The focus is always on the action and the characters, and the story moves on constantly.
Overall, this has to be one of the best, if not the best, sci-fi film for years. I rate it 10/10.