Alien Apartheid: Exploring Neil Blonkamp’s ‘District 9’

10 Sep

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District 9 (R) 112 min. Directed by: Neil Blonkamp.

cinemagrade A+

 ‘District 9’ has been playing for almost a month now and the critical and commercial response to Neil Blonkamp’s South African sci-fi actioner has been surprisingly strong and positive. Back in May, I cited the movie in my Top Ten Summer Sci-Fi list and placed it at the top. Even I, however, was still sideswiped by what I found upon walking into the theater. I saw the film two days after its release but vacation and a few other events thwarted me from writing it up. Now, with the initial excitement cleared and a little time passed to process it, I think I’m ready to take a crack at it. For anyone still on the fence about seeing it, or those who want a one sentence sum-up, here you go: District 9 is probably the best science fiction film of the last decade, and easily the best sci-fi action film since 1999’s The Matrix. So, if you wanna see it but haven’t, and know you are going, don’t read any further. Go in fresh and come back here later.

For all of you still around, I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as I can; discussing the film without giving away any of it’s myriad of surprises and delights.

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It is uncommon in film, even films that present the fantastical to us, to experience a real moment of wonder or honest, sustained disbelief. In our current culture technology has given us the ability to visualize almost anything, and the limits are defined only by the parmaters of our imagination and skill. It has become common place to see dinosaurs, aliens, vampires or giant robots in the movies. It also isn’t surprising to see them done well, but what is less common, and more rare is to be captivated by the illusion and transported to that place on the screen.

The experimental science fiction films of the late 70s and early 80s were often very adept at creating and sustaining such imaginative visions. For example, the squalid city streets of futuristic L.A. in Blade Runner or the arid deserts of Tatooine in Star Wars work as a transporting illusion. Part of the reason for this was that those filmmakers were working with limited resources and time, forced to create so much of their films from scratch, resulting in a less polished, more rugged, real-world look. Compare the assault on the Death Star in A New Hope with the space battle that opens Revenge of the Sith. One is clearly more immersive, and it isn’t the newer, flashier model. The second issue working in favor of those young directors was that they were  just starting out, had everything to prove, not worried about limitations that had yet to be set. They were putting everything ouup front, and although it wasn’t perfected or sanitized, it often felt alot more vibrant and alive.

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I mention all this because that this is the very quality that Neil Blonkamp’s District 9 has, and one of the reasons I think it’s the year’s best film. The first trailers created a sense of mystery at seeing that massive spaceship hanging over the skies of Johannesburg, but the incredible feat of the film itself is that after five minutes, the giant, city-size saucer seems almost mundane, commonplace; just one more bit of rusted clutter in the South African landscape–and the same is true of the unnatural milieu taking place underneath the craft. We accept immediately the possibility that in the late 80’s (around the same time that apartheid was running rampant in South Africa) a cluster of put-upon proletariat aliens found themselves marooned in Joburg airspace and subsequently stranded in the middle of a country that did not have the room, patience or desire for them.

Blonkamp’s film is a mini-wonder, and mostly because it doesn’t necessarily feel amazing or wonderful. The movie opens with a documentary style structure that introduces us to the extreme alternate-ness of this reality; the MNU, the arrival of the spaceship, the creation of ‘District 9’ a shanty town hovel that houses the aliens, and most importantly the extraterrestrials themselves. When the film does show them to the audience, they are revolting, more insectoid than humanoid, and they exist in a state of fetid, squalid poverty–participating in ‘inter-species prostitution’ and eating whatever they can find, with an odd and particular addiction to catfood. The news broadcasts call them ‘prawns’, which is a derrogatory term that is used by both the common villager and government official with equal contempt and disdain. They have been stuck here for 20 years, don’t seem to even be the best and brightest of their race–possibly lower level workers, lost and adrift when the leaders aboard the vessel died. They are mistrusted, and as a result of their mistrust they are segregated from the human population. Segregation breeds disgust and hatred, and hatred bears out a very specific and deceptive persecution that finds the aliens on the recieving end of alot of ill will and clandestine MNU plotting.

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This is all backstory and it has been brilliantly concieved by Blonkamp, who then takes it and wraps it into a tale that has  impact, with characters who start out in very unlikable places and evolve in our esteem not as much through their actions as through the growing empathy we feel for them. Empathy is a hard thing to do well, especially in a science fiction film where your targets are an icky alien being and a marginalized, apathetic human cubicle jockey.  And yet, thats why the movie works–why it suceeds to bring together the social commentary, the speculative fiction and the wild-eyed 80s action–because it finds two of the years most compelling (and complex) characters in the alien ‘prawn’ Christopher Johnson and the fallen MNU agent Wikus Van De Merwe.

Chris Johnson is not quite like the other prawns in District 9, but I won’t be giving away his secret here. He’s a bit smarter, a bit more aware of whats happening than his fellow castaways, and when he comes into the orbit of Wikus, they find themselves pitted against a society that offers them no positive options. Wikus, once an obedient paper-pushing slug who merrily carried out “abortions’ of prawn hatchlings and violently relocated alien squatters in his stint as an MNU field agent, finds himself cohabiting with the creatures not because of a change of heart but because of a change of ‘being’.

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After being sprayed by a piece of prawn technology, Wikus finds a distressing thing happening; like the protagonist in Cronenberg’s The Fly, he’s genetically breaking down from one form into another–in this case, he’s becoming a prawn. This does two things. It draws down the MNU, who want him because his genes are now the key to operating the alien technology(it only responds to prawn touch, more or less). It also forces Wikus to live on the other side of the fence; there isn’t a heartfelt moment where he realizes he has been wrong, and he doesn’t go to the prawns and they immediately take him in. No, he sits on crapheaps, eating spoiled, unidentifiable garbage and hiding like a frightened rat. He has as little as his alien charges have now, and he’s doing about as much with it.  

When he and Chris–and Chris’ son– find themselves in a sort of uneasy alliance, it’s because both groups stand to personally benefit. The roiling world of District 9 is savage and destructive, and both ‘men’ are fighting for their own future against all comers. When Wikus begins to consider his options, and Chris starts to put his long percolating plans into action, the film springs to life and gains its emotional and spiritual center. These two central performances are outstanding, made all the more so by the fact that one is by a man whose never been in film before and the other is essentially just computer generated imagery. Sharlto Copley as Wikus might honestly pull an actor nod from the Academy come February, and he truly deserves it. He plays a man  physically turning into an alien, while at the same time playing an alien emotionally turning into a man.  And to look into the unnatural but affecting eyes of Chris Johnson is to see not special effects but  fear, hope, desperation, commitment. Y’know, all of those human traits.

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There are also several other really great things about District 9 as a film and an entertainment. For one, it’s as exciting and envigorating an action extravaganza as I’ve seen in sometime–not as singularly intense as The Hurt Locker but it manages to make the mayhem entertaining and by the end, poetic, poignant and satisfying. It ain’t easy trying to draw emotional drama in the midst of exploding pigs, battling mech-suits, and warlord vs. MNU shootouts but the film does and I appreciate that. The structure of District 9, moving beyond the documentary shell in the second half and bringing it back to bookend the picture, is one of the more slyly intelligent things Blonkamp does. He demonstrates governmental information control and media manipulation through the placement of key plot points and sinister foreshadowing. It is interesting to note that even as a reviewer I don’t have another name to use for the ‘prawns’ because we, the viewers, aren’t ever provided with another. The epitaph is the only verbal acknowledgement they are given, save for Chris Johnson, whose name clearly wasn’t given to him on his alien homeworld.

In the end, it isn’t one thing that left such a mark on my memory, but each and every detail that my mind managed to catch on the first go-through. Having seen it twice, I can tell you there is more than enough for two veiwings to sufficiently cover. Blonkamp doesn’t make a perfect movie, but even in it’s imperfections it attains a certain kind of sublime experience. There is a great story here and the execution is of the highest caliber; it isn’t afraid to get dirty, but it pulls some real treasures up out of that muck. Making a film about one’s hometown often draws out the most sentimental, or virtuous elements, but Blonkamp, who grew up here, and witnessed apartheid as it happened, has gone a more honest and thoughtful route. He approaches the problem with a captivating science fiction premise. In the end he isn’t addressing something as singular as racism, class struggle or government-led subjugation, but he goes higher and more universal–  squarely aiming his considerable cinematic abilities at the human condition and our ability to coexist together regardless of our individual ‘alien-ness’.

 

When he made this short film Alive in Joburg, Neil was gunning for the job of Halo director. Now that he has delivered District 9, something like Halo seems a waste of his talents. Me, I want to see everything that happens after that last shot in this film. Awesome stuff.

 

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