A while back, a huge spaceship entered the atmosphere over Johannesburg, South Africa, basically coming to a stop over the sprawling city. Anxious to find out what was going on, the authorities send some people up to the spaceship and they cut into it, revealing a bunch of aliens who were sick and in need of attention. Their solution is to set them up in a segregated community called District 9. The place quickly becomes a slum and the authorities spend most of their time trying to keep the aliens inside the confines of the District and their crime to a minimum. We get all of this information through a documentary film crew who are giving us a recap. The government has decided to reclaim the district, because they have no more room and the aliens have to go. Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the poster boy for the MNU (Multi National United) is awarded the task of providing eviction notices to the 'prawns" as they are commonly referred to. He is extremely proud and sets off for District 9. Soon, they meet some resistance and Wikus is accidentally exposed to their biotechnology. He begins to sense strange things happening and his body starts to change, taking on some of the appearance of the 'prawns'. Now a fugitive, he eventually decides to hide out amongst the rest of his new people. When he learns some secrets about the MNU, he decides to help one of the alien's resistance leaders fight back against the oppression they have been facing.
"Distrct 9" came about because Peter Jackson and Neil Blomkamp were going to make a film based on the video game "Halo". That was delayed, so they decided to work together to make this film which is based on a short film the director made a number of years earlier. It is an unusual, inventive film and shows great promise for this director. It is easy to see why Jackson was so keen to make this film with the director.
The film is presented as a documentary and opens with a selection of newsreel footage bringing us up to speed. What we quickly learn is that an alien spaceship is sitting above Johannesburg, South Africa and all of the inhabitants have been segregated into a slum called District 9. Shortly after this happens, a piece of the spaceship falls to Earth and the authorities have never been able to find it. Now the government wants the land back and the aliens have to go. Wikus, a clueless government plebe is excited to receive the opportunity to be the face of the eviction effort. If successful, he knows that his career will really take off, this despite the fact his father-in-law is in charge of the MNU. He sets off, complete with a security force, and they make their way to the slum. They quickly run into resistance and Wikus gets separated from his team. He seeks refuge with a male prawn and his young son, but gets exposed to their DNA, causing him to begin to transform. Scared out of his mind, he tries to hide it, to keep away from people, but his secret quickly becomes known and the MNU starts to hunt for him, because he could hold the key to some very important questions they have been trying to answer.
As the film progresses, we watch as Wikus tries to navigate through the various landscapes, both alien and human, adapting to his new life. During these moments, the film leaves the documentary format behind, returning to this narrative style throughout, flowing from one format of the narrative and back again seamlessly.
Sharlto Copley, a native South African, plays Wikus and he does a very good job with the role. A virtual unknown, Blomkamp cast him for his short film and he plays the same character in both films. I was impressed by his work and how well he handles all of the different emotions and situations his character experiences. In the beginning, his hair slicked back, his white button down short sleeve shirt complete with a pen sticking out of the pocket; this guy could not be anything but a bureaucrat. He is filled with fresh-faced optimism at his new position and even excited about the new responsibility. As he goes through his day, and the situation deteriorates, his optimism remains throughout. He never willingly says a bad word about his employer, even when he discovers some shocking secrets about them.
Only when the situation becomes dire, does he truly realize the gravity and danger he is now in. Only then, does he switch his alliance and start looking to new people for help and assistance.
I like the fact it takes a long time for Wikus to change, to see the light. If he starts to doubt the MNU, the people he works for, that means he has to accept that his body has become infected. It also seems completely natural for his character to offer his help to the alien father in return for his help. He has a lifelong bias toward these creatures and that isn't going to change overnight.
The CGI (Computer Generated Imagery or effects) work in the film is truly remarkable. From the moment we first see one of the aliens, they seem real; every movement is flawless, everything they do seems to work. In a way, I think it was a daring decision for Blomkamp and Jackson to create a film about aliens existing in our world. They have to make the creatures seem even more realistic, even more alive, because they are living in a real world, a world we recognize. It would have been a little easier for them to have the aliens living in their world, to make them seem real because they are in a fictional world. Because they would have to create the background for these creatures, they can hide some flaws and movements. In our world, they have to work extra hard to make everything fit, to make them seem real in a real world.
It is also interesting to see the huge spaceship floating above the city in newsreel footage, more so because the footage is from different times and places, the quality changing greatly from one clip to the next. The spaceship appears all the more convincing because in some clips we don't even see all of it. It is that big. Then, when we finally get some close looks at it, it appears menacing and ominous and frightening. But then we remember a key fact. The ship appears to be broken down.
The action is also great. Blomkamp has a real no-holds-barred style and really puts us in the thick of the action. One of the key plot points in the film is the aliens have all of this advanced weaponry with them, weaponry the MNU wants to learn about and get hold of. The corporation captures some weapons, but they only work when operated by the aliens, so they learn little and don't get the results they want. During some of the battles, Wikus gets his hands on some of these weapons and his evolving DNA allows him to use them. And they prove helpful to him, but also frighteningly deadly.
But "District 9" is too unwieldy a film. It revisits locations, putting Wikus through the same situations a few times and this only makes the film seem repetitive. For instance, he journeys to MNU twice and has to fight his way out each time.
There are also a few plot points that don't mesh as well as the others. As soon as we learn about the aliens who have been segregated to this slum, we learn about a band of Nigerian gangsters who have opened up a black market with the creatures. The Nigerians want the weapons these creatures have and considering the prawns are willing to trade the weapons for cans of cat food, everyone feels like they have made a deal. When the Nigerians learn of Wikus, and his special new skills, they want him as bad as the MNU and everyone else. So their paraplegic leader sends bands of his men after him.
This storyline just seems extraneous. Quite frankly, the MNU is a more menacing villain, so the Nigerian gangsters seem like time filler.
But "District 9" has a lot to offer and a lot of originality we don't often find or experience in a summer blockbuster.
Regarding the cat food… The aliens find they have a taste for the feline staple and willingly trade for cans of the stuff. When everyone learns this, the cat food takes on a new currency in unscrupulous hands.
"District 9" is definitely worth a look. It is worth your time and money. And see it now, so when "District 10" comes out, you aren't scrambling to rent the first film. Or waiting impatiently for Netflix to send it to you.
And I am definitely interested to see what else Neil Blomkamp brings to the silver screen. I get the sense he is someone to watch.