Compulsive sci-fi film laced with action and telling humour, FX-whiz Neil Blomkamp’s debut feature District 9, adapted from his short subject “Alive in Joburg” (2005), is set twenty-odd years in the future, after a race of aliens, dubbed “prawns” for their crustaceous appearance, have landed on Earth, their spaceship apparently exhausted of power and most of the aliens themselves only a shiftless mob of galaxy-trash. They have been confined to a shanty town outside
, creating social tension and casual havoc, resulting in their affairs being taken in hand by sleazy arms-manufacturing company MNU, which wants to find a way to exploit the aliens’ bioengineered weaponry, resistant initially to human efforts to use them. Johannesburg, South Africa
The lengthy introductory sequences, in which nebbishy bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a representative of MNU put in charge of moving the aliens to a new internment camp because he’s married to the boss’s daughter, and his paramilitary aides attempt to personally serve eviction notices on nearly two million “prawns”, are well done and laced with neatly transposed points about underclass citizens and racist attitudes, but it’s also obviously an extrapolation of a one-joke short film, played out in the already clichéd style of the mockumentary. Blomkamp has to walk a tricky path, in determinedly resisting the ponderous air of parable that afflicted precursors like Enemy Mine (1986) or Alien Nation (1988), but he takes other risks in finally deciding on a cheer-along buddy action film, full of hair’s-breadth escapes and bad guys ripe for severe chastisement.
The story begins to gain real momentum when Wikus is infected by an alien fluid, setting in motion a painful and unsettling transmogrification into a hybrid. He is soon found, through vicious coercion, to be the only man alive who can use the alien weaponry, making him a prize both for MNU and also to the sleazy Nigerian voodoo gangsters who prey on the aliens. Eventually Wikus forms an unsteady alliance with the determined alien ‘Christopher Johnson’ and his son, who have still maintained purpose and dignity in trying to get their crippled spaceships working again, leading to thunderous showdowns in the headquarters of MNU and the shanties of District 9.
It’s easy to see the influence of producer Peter Jackson, as the film sports his favourite motif of the nerdy loser transformed into hysterical superwarrior, a motif
used often in his early films like Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Blomkamp's and Terri Tatchell's screenplay amusingly quotes many a cliché of the action genre with a slight twist of perversity: “We stick together! I’m not leaving you here!” Christopher chirps in his subtitled alien language. The Cronenberg-esque body-horrors are played generally for queasy humour, as when MNU tries to discredit and isolate Wikus by putting out doctored photos purporting to reveal him engaged in interspecies miscegenation. Jackson
Blomkamp, despite his anti-racist purpose, falls into his own trap, with his leering, superstitious Nigerian hoods, although, admittedly, the corporate baddies, exemplified by mercenary sadist Colonel Venter (David James), are themselves equally ugly caricatures of Apartheid-era Afrikaaner cruelty. The satire and humanism would surely have bit a little deeper if the generic nuts and bolts had been more intricately arranged, with a better defined sense of the interrelationship of human and alien cultures, to make the disparity between the aliens’ fearsome technology and their generally passive, wastrel community more explicable, and less one of dramatic convenience: the film becomes, in a way, a sci-fi variant on Blood Diamond. Blomkamp surrenders thematic rigour and exploration a little too readily for the sake of a relentlessly thrilling pace. Why, for instance, the aliens' vital fuel has been scattered, requiring a lengthy search, or why only some of the aliens retain a sense of self, is only touched upon. Nonetheless, District 9 is the strong revival of the kind of smart and unabashed genre film that we’ve waited for and deserved for so long.