Why are they here? Why don’t they leave? And more importantly, how do their weapons work? Aliens have landed and, frankly, they’re bringing down the house prices.
The setting of director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp’s native Johannesburg brings a different edge to the usual Americanised ET wants to go home scenario.
28 years ago, aliens mysteriously arrived in the South African city of Johannesburg. Presumably they broke down on their way to America. With their ship suspended miles above the ground and seemingly broken beyond repair, the aliens are forced to live in the slums of District 9.
Derogatively dubbed ‘prawns’, the 1.8 million stranded aliens are segregated away from all humans apart from notorious gangs and other societal outcasts. Soon even this won’t satisfy the locals and the military contractor, Multinational United (MNU), steps in to move the aliens on to the poorly veiled concentration camp, District 10.
Enter office worker Wilkus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley channelling band manager Murray from Flight of the Conchords and Jeff Goldblum in The Fly). A delighted Wilkus is charged with the task of handing the aliens their 24 hour eviction notices in a ludicrously bureaucratic nod to procedure.
It’s when Wilkus gets sprayed with some mysterious alien ‘fluid’ while delivering eviction notices, that things take a turn for the repulsive. As his body begins a slow and gooey transformation, Wilkus’ value increases to MNU. The alien’s biotechnology means that only they can operate it and their weapons now recognise Wilkus as one of their own, much to his disgust. With MNU wanting to sell him on to the highest bidder, Wilkus is forced to turn fugitive and go back to the only place he’ll be accepted, District 9.
The setting of director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp’s native Johannesburg brings a different edge to the usual Americanised ET wants to go home scenario. The film is heavily influenced by the events of the South African apartheid and, in between the blood, guts and interspecies conversions, there’s an eloquent social commentary.
To maximise the gritty realism, the majority of District 9 is filmed in a mockumentary style. Through this Blomkamp artfully contrasts the viewpoints of the human interviewees with what is actually happening on screen, and avoids rubbing the film's message in our faces by letting us figure it out for ourselves - that some things just can’t be justified.
These insectile aliens aren’t going to be blowing up the White House any time soon because they’re just as aimless as the rest of humanity. Most of the aliens’ needs go no further than where they’ll get their next tin of cat food from and any violence is purely reactionary. And small wonder; the officials are just big kids with guns, teasing the aliens as if they’re new pets whose appeal lasts as long as their tolerance to cruelty.
Blomkamp certainly isn’t precious about the integrity of his leading man. Wilkus is a fundamentally flawed human whose transformation is poetic justice. Even tender moments on the phone to his wife don’t make a hero out of him and when it comes to the crunch, he’s still a coward. It’s refreshing to discover a lead that is surprisingly resilient to learning from his mistakes. What makes Wilkus so marvellous as a character is that as deplorable as he is, you’ll still want him to redeem himself in the end.
Wilkus’ man-to-prawn transition is a whole character in itself. With copious vomiting, nails coming juicily away from the skin and teeth falling out, this is a metamorphosis bested only by David Cronenberg’s The Fly. To be fair to District 9, however, it still manages a plot on top of the graphic body-morph and audiences probably couldn’t handle another penis in a jar.
The CGI aliens don’t suffer for the relatively low budget. Even close up, they’re brilliantly realised and have enough expression that you can relate to them. The alien father/son duo that Wilkus teams up with is made all the more real by Copley’s incredible performance and you genuinely care about their survival. The world is a dark place and you’re willing the aliens to leave for better pastures, if only for their own good.
This is a brooding, atmospheric film that rekindles faith in the sci-fi genre. The ship is ever present, hovering ominously over nearly every scene. Poor Wilkus’ battle with his transformation is gratifyingly stomach churning, and the struggle of the alien father, Christopher, and prawn-junior to survive, is filled with quiet desperation.
Despite this, the film still has a gloriously dark sense of humour. Even the way the alien weaponry literally explodes humans is, let’s face it, bloody funny. It harks back to the brilliant gore-fest comedy horror that producer Peter Jackson excelled at in his filmic youth.
This anti-human morality tale does have its drawbacks. The mysterious fluid that Wilkus ingests has two extremely contrasting uses. The secrets the trailers told of are either blabbed in the film’s opening moments or left entirely unanswered. The villains are mostly cartoon-ish, moustachioed types. But with a unique lead character in Wilkus, a genuinely exuberant finale and that gut wrenching transformation, District 9 is a science fiction film you can actually get excited about.