Directed By: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood
District 9 is an inexpensive lesson for aspiring filmmakers. If you have any flair for CGI or visual effects and you have an original idea, start by making a short film demonstrating your skills and hope that it blows someone away. This is how Neill Blomkamp has successfully convinced revered director Peter Jackson to produce and ‘present’ the full length version of his innovative sci-fi epic. Blomkamp’s original short film Alive in Joburg confirmed in 6 minutes that a handheld documentary style could be blended with special effects to make the outrageous into the believable. The full length District 9 built on this style and the end result is a stunning work of realist science fiction.
The entire film takes place in Johannesburg, where an unidentified alien mothership has come to rest above the city. Instead of the usual “we don’t come in peace” invasion scenario, thousands of aliens are rescued from the ship where they have presumably been left by their leaders to die. A refugee camp is set up to control them, which eventually becomes a slum that cannot stop inhabitants from escaping to find greener pastures. When humans begin to protest these incursions, the government acts to move them to a more isolated position outside the city. The protagonist Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is then introduced as a bureaucrat who is newly responsible for legally railroading the aliens into agreeing to being segregated. The story then takes a sharp turn towards the bizarre, following Wikus’s encounters with both the aliens and the human authorities as he breaks down, evolves, and redeems himself in spectacular fashion.
With all this happening in Johannesburg, it is clear that the film is effectively replaying the long history of apartheid in the city, particularly the events of the 1950’s, where the black-dominated population of the Sophiatown district were forcefully removed from their homes and taken to the area that became Soweto. The alternate history of South African apartheid that is presented in the film suggests that fear and lack of understanding are never reasons for withholding freedom and equality, no matter how ugly the aliens may appear. Blomkamp has taken a nicer (but no less violent) approach to the classic question asked in Ridley Scott’s Alien all those years ago: Which species are the real monsters? But don’t be put off by the depth of the social and political aspects of District 9, there is enough experimental alien weaponry causing rewarding ends to bad guys to keep everyone smiling.
There is certainly a trend developing among sci-fi films of using rocky documentary-style camera techniques to achieve a heightened sense of realism or to make an outlandish plot convincing (Cloverfeild, Children of Men, Quarantine). For the films that fail to find the right use for it or balance it with a good enough story, the style alone tends to commit the crime of becoming a novelty. Luckily, the use of this style in District 9 creates a kind of explicit realism that is immediately captivating and shocking. It amplifies the story’s menacing tone as well as acting as a platform for the somewhat self-referential mocking and black humour that abounds nicely throughout the film.
District 9 is an original story that utilises contemporary camera styles that add real value to the classic sci-fi themes that the film respects. You will probably not expect that this small budget film that has no star actors, no Hollywood hype and almost no credentials is one of the finest, and most innovative alien movies ever made. But this really is a sci-fi epic that puts it’s contemporaries to shame.
You will love this if: Politics, history, weird South African accents and outrageous alien guns are your thing.
You will hate this if: You are racist towards aliens.