District 9: The Little Film that Could

Film — By on September 30, 2009 at 4:20 pm

In a world of Michael Bays and bloated summer blockbuster spectacles, District 9 is a welcome breath of fresh air. For those still among the un-initiated, District 9 is a science fiction film from Director Neil Blomkamp that has caused quite a stir among sci-fi fan boys and Hollywood filmmakers alike. What distinguishes District 9 from most Hollywood summer sci-fi flicks (aside from the unknown director and cast, shockingly realistic special effects, and slim production budget) is the way it  cleverly turns one of the most common science fiction tropes on its head: instead of  the now cliched alien invasion plot, District 9 opens with the premise that aliens have already arrived on earth, are here to stay, and live under the oppression of humans who simply don’t understand their extra-terrestrial neighbors.

The film opens with a whirlwind tour of the arrival of an enormous ship over Johannesburg nearly twenty years earlier, the discovery of the sick and undernourished aliens residing inside, and the building of “District 9″,the alien ghetto inside Johannesburg.The conflict is simple. The aliens, dubbed “prawns,” are violent, aimless, uncooperative, and apparently here to stay. The ghetto’s proximity to the city creates a constant tension between the animal-like aliens and their unsympathetic human neighbors.

Because of this conflict, a relocation effort is approved to move the 1.8 million aliens to a new “District 10″ camp well outside Johannesburg. The effort is led by Multinational United (MNU), a company which seems more interested in the aliens’ advanced weaponry (which only the prawns can operate) than in the safety and comfort of the species. They elect Wikus van de Merwe to head the effort, possibly because of his witless attitude, and possibly because the President of MNU is his father-in-law.

As Wikus investigates the house of one prawn, Christopher Johnson (as he was named by the MNU), he is sprayed with a mysterious substance that initiates a terrifying transformation. His body  slowly takes on the genetic make-up of the prawns. When the MNU discovers that Wikus’s genetic transformation has made him the first human able to operate prawn weaponry, Wikus immediately becomes the company’s greatest asset. At this point the film’s conflict comes clearly into focus. Wikus must escape MNU and find Christopher Johnson, his only hope for reversing the horrifying transformation. The partnership of these two characters, each harboring a serious dislike for the other’s species, provides the backbone for the plot as well as the primary exploration of the film’s themes of racism.

Exploring the real world themes of racism through speciesism is not particularly new to science fiction- remember the famous interracial kiss in the original Star Trek series? District 9, however, brilliantly pushes this theme further towards apartheid, creating a city on the verge of constant violence. This shift allows the theme to drive the plot, in addition to providing interesting intellectual fodder.

Perhaps the film’s strongest virtue is the stunningly realistic visual effects. Many are saying the film’s CG driven action sequences are just as good as anything in the Transformers films, which is shocking when you consider that the latter was made for $200 million and the former for a relatively slim $30 million. This tight production budget has allowed it’s $100 million in box office sales to firmly establish it as a massive success by Hollywood standards. Throw the film’s unique setup and a dash of strong acting into the pot and you’ll realize quickly that for all it’s oddities, District 9 delivers a much heartier meal then the well packaged junk food of Hollywood’s typical high budget summer fare.

If in this recession you cannot afford the local cineplex, you can always check out Blomkamp’s short that inspired the feature, Alive in Joburg, which can be seen here.

by brian walton