It’s nearly eleven hours since I saw the movie and its effect lingers with me still. I haven’t been this blown away by something I saw at the movies since The Dark Knight last year. Just like that blockbuster, I can say this with confidence, BELIEVE THE HYPE.
But unlike the caped crusader tale, District 9 was an original story, based on first-time director Neill Blomkamp’s documentary-style extraterrestrial- on-earth short story Alive in Jo’burg. When I first saw the trailer a few months ago in a theater, I quickly dismissed it as some weird sci-fi flick probably way too out there for my taste, even though the name Peter Jackson did piqued my interest, having loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Then the buzz started to really hit and the more I read and heard about it, the more I intrigued I was by it. Buoyed by the promise of originality, edge-of-your-seat sequences and unusual film-making style, I went to see it with a pretty high expectation. Suffice it to say, I didn’t leave the theater disappointed. In fact, it was quite a spectacle, just as I hope it would be.
The film grabbed my attention right from the beginning—with documentary-style and realistic hand-held camerawork—and didn’t let go. We’re told from various ‘interviews’ with experts and insiders of the present day, that an alien mother ship arrived on earth 20 years ago but somehow ran out of fuel, leaving it stalled hovering above the city of Johannesburg. When the military finally went up there to find out what’s going on, they discovered a whole bunch of alien creatures stuck in the ship in malnourished and destitute condition. The government then set up an area called District 9 to quarantine over a million of these crustacean creatures—derogatorily called ‘prawns’ by humans—that resembles a slum like nothing you’ve ever seen. I read Roger Ebert’s review in which he called these aliens disgusting, and boy was he right, but what blew my mind was how realistic they look and in a bizarre way, how I came to eventually see them as more than repulsive.
The ‘hero’ of the movie didn’t start out like one, in fact, he was so much an unlikely protagonist that made his transformation to one all the more affecting. Wikus van der Merwe is nothing but a careerist in a bureaucratic Multi-National United (MNU), a private company assigned to control the chaotic population of the aliens. His boss—who happens to be his own father in-law—assigns him to lead the tremendous project of moving these aliens to a different quarter. Of course, this is more than mere ‘population control,’ there’s a pretty obvious agenda here involving the highly-advanced alien weaponry that only the aliens themselves can operate it. That’s all I’m going to say, as it’s best for you to find out for yourself why that matters.
The action pretty much starts as soon as Wikus gets infected by an alien liquid whilst on a mission to deliver the eviction notices to the aliens. It’s actually quite comical when he goes around knocking on doors and ask the aliens to put their ‘scrawl’ on a piece of paper. What I don’t get is, why in the world would these people go into such a filthy and uncharted area without so much as a glove or mask! I mean, you’d be hard-pressed not to get infected. In any case, Wikus goes from a leader all jovial and gleeful to being a ruthlessly hunted man. Now, Wikus isn’t exactly a moral man, but he’s almost saintly compared to the military people who merely sees these aliens as mere disposable objects to be exploited and would do anything to them in order to get what they’re looking for. Let’s just say Wikus finds this out the harsh way when they see what has happened to him.
Newcomer South African actor Sharlto Copley is excellent in his debut film, as the tragic character Wikus he provides the emotional core of the film as he takes us along for the out of this world ride of his life. Strangely enough, his unlikely alien cohort, Christoper Johnson (yep, that’s the crustacean’s name), also delivers some of the film’s touching and tearjerker scenes. He’s probably the most noble character in the entire film, and his interaction with his young son is just like a human father to a human son. It’s not such a novelty idea for filmmakers to make the audience care for the aliens, but this film took it further in that at the end of the film, I have more sympathy for him than for some of the humans depicted here. And eventually, so does Wikus. It’s as if he finds his humanity as he struggles to keep it. The best part is, it’s such a believable and seamless transformation, not simply because the script says so and we’re blatantly told to accept it.
This movie is billed as an action sci-fi, and it is. But it works just as well as a psychological drama and a political allegory about racism and immigration still prevalent in the world today. Yet this movie isn’t preachy, Blomkamp merely presents things as they are, well as they might have been I should say. Jackson’s company Weta Digital did an amazing job in creating this gritty and realistic-looking world, it truly felt real, it’s as if I just finished watching real news footage of an actual event.
This isn’t a film for everyone though, and definitely not for the faint of hearts. I had trepidation going in as I’m very squeamish about stuff, but even with all the brutal violence, filth and often stomach-churning scenes, the payoff is greater that makes the whole experience worthwhile. I’m so glad to have seen such a bravura piece of cinema that’s so rarely found today. It’s not without flaws, but overall it’s such a distinctly moving, poignant and provocative film that makes you ponder long after the end credits roll. It sure left me wonder as I left the cinema, if such an event were to happen in our world today, how would we react?
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts.