“District 9” proves that nothing unites the human race better than a good old-fashioned alien invasion. We forget our own racial hatred for two minutes to gang up on slimy spacemen, exploit their advanced technology, extract their DNA and stamp all over what’s left. From “War of the Worlds” to “V” through to the god-awful “Independence Day,” we may take a pasting at first but sooner or later those bug eyed bastards are going to pay the fiddler.
The aliens in Neil Blomkamp’s debut feature are certainly ugly, but they’re not invaders in the martial sense. They are more akin to the ‘Newcomers’ in “Alien Nation.” In 1982, their immense mothership appears over Johannesburg like a battered power plant and remains silent for three months. Finally the South Africans cut their way in to find the inhabitants starving and close to death. In the quick-fire montage that follows, we find out how a sinister mega corporation, MNU, has now taken charge of the aliens’ ‘welfare’.
Twenty years later the aliens, now known as ‘Prawns,’ live in abject squalor in a ghetto called ‘District 9.’ They are disgusting creations, guzzling overpriced cat-food hawked by Nigerian gangsters. Rotten meat oozes into the garbage as flies and MNU gunships buzz overhead. Just as we are busy recoiling from the truly repugnant filth the ‘Prawns’ scrabble around in, we remember this state of being already exists for humanity in Brazil, India and South Africa itself.
Reading between the lines, it seems that the ‘Prawns’ arrival is the real reason Apartheid ended in South Africa, as blacks and whites alike curse the interstellar refugees with equal vigour. The visual references to Apartheid are exceptionally strong as MNU soldiers in armoured trucks forcefully evict the aliens from their shantytown to what is for all intents and purposes a concentration camp. This is reminiscent of the forced removal of the black residents of Sophiatown in 1955 and the wider ‘resettlement’ policy in the 1960s and 1970s.
Blomkamp’s vision extends beyond the Boer War concentration camps and the Soweto uprising to take in the current Zimbabwean refugee crisis, cholera outbreak and the Southern African AIDS epidemic. Furthermore, we are forced to question our ever shifting global populace and the middle class notion of a multicultural society: a grand experiment as long as it doesn’t affect them too directly.
This attitude is found in Steve Carell look-alike Wikus Van De Merwe, a cheerfully ignorant MNU executive in charge of the ‘District 9’ eviction. Wikus is only elevated to such a position because he is married to his boss’ daughter. In fact, Wikus first comes across as a middle ranking S.S officer, spectacularly average in civilian life but dangerously effective when given power over others.
Quickly over-reaching himself, Wikus becomes infected with an alien virus during the chaos of the evictions. He soon becomes “The most valuable business artefact in the world” as his Kafkaesque metamorphosis enables him to use the aliens’ weapons. This gradual transformation bears more than a little resemblance to the ‘body shock’ horror of David Cronenberg and his version of “The Fly” in particular.
Just as remarkable as Wikus’ physical transformation is his moral one. Blomkamp’s handling of this story arc is flamboyant, distressing, but equally realistic. Sharlto Copley deals with the comedy of his character as deftly as with the horror Wikus experiences at the hands of the Mengele-type scientists deep beneath the shiny skyscrapers of MNU. This sequence is as visceral as they come and as disturbing as the first part of the film is blackly comic.
Blomkamp never lets his special effects override the story and frequently cuts to the ominous hulk of the mothership, so realistic you would be forgiven for forgetting that it wasn’t an actual South African landmark. Looking at it we ponder why it came to Earth in the first place. Was it an accident, did the passengers escape from somewhere, or were they dumped on us by some other aliens?
“District 9” harks back to the Paul Verhoeven school of smart science fiction actioner he started with “Robocop” and “Total Recall” and later perfected with “Starship Troopers.” The ending sets up an obvious sequel but would be all the more exquisite if left to stand alone. Peter Jackson, the producer, has obviously uncovered a new and exciting talent in Blomkamp and we can only dream what Blomkamp would have done with the cancelled “Halo” movie. The young director is certainly one to keep an eye on.