It’s nice to visit an old friend again. I’ve been telling people to watch “District 9” for years now, ever since I watched it with my uncle at the ripe old age of 14 or so. It was nice to pick it up again and finally visit what I’ve been telling people is one of my all time favourite science fiction films. I’ve watched a lot more since then, and I can now recognise that “District 9” isn’t as great as I perhaps made it out to be, but for the most part the intriguing plot and the lack of concrete information we receive about the ‘prawns’ keeps the film engaging until we reach the film’s slightly weaker final act. In essence, I still feel there is a lot to like about Neil Blomkamp’s “District 9”, despite it’s diminishing returns upon my second viewing.
In 1982, Johannesburg, a horrific tumour moved over the city and now blots the skyline 20 years later in suspension. The alien Mother ship was eventually cut open by investigation teams and they found thousands of malnourished aliens, referred to affectionately by the humans as ‘prawns’. They are swiftly brought down to the Earth’s surface and given a district all of their own, district 9.
This district quickly becomes a slum and the prawns are generally revered by the human population. Clear references to apartheid are everywhere and it is somewhat effective. The prawns generally seem to be engaging in activities that are deemed inappropriate by the humans, such as arson and pulling peoples arms off. So weapons manufacturer MNU is commissioned to build a new district for the prawns and relocate the millions of inhabitants in district 9 there instead. Leading the team to give eviction notices to the prawns is Wikus (Sharlto Copley) who’s comically clumsy and incessant reference to his wife as an “angel”, provides fairly concrete that he only got promoted on account of his father-in-law (Louis Minnaar) being the boss.
The plot of “District 9” I found to be suitably unique, it centers around themes of racism and clearly references the historic apartheid that was rampant in the history of South Africa. This alone makes for some scathing satire, which can be dug into quite a bit deeper if one has some historical or cultural knowledge of the area. What interests me most though is how little we really know about the prawns. The typical questions such as “where did they come from?” interest me least, what I want to know is what happened to their hierarchy and structure? Did they even have one? Clearly they are an intelligent race as shown by the ever present Mother ship, so what is their culture like on their planet?
These questions are unanswered and I feel it is better left that way, the story doesn’t get bogged down in such affairs and stays exclusively on this planet, though the curiosity remains. The back-story presented to us in the films first fifteen or so minutes is presented as a series of news reports and interviews that are taking place after the films events. We hear from Wikus father that he has disowned him, we hear from his close friends that he betrayed the company, but then we see the bumbling fool he is and it is difficult not be intrigued as to what exactly what he is going to do.
During the eviction raid, Wikus confiscates a strange liquid that has been gathered by Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), the main prawn character of the film, and he manages to activate the protective canister and ingest some. We also see Christopher’s friend (who was tasked with hiding the mysteriously important vial) be mercilessly executed by the sadistic Koobus Venter (David James), a soldier working for MNU. It is discovered in hospital that Wikus’ is actually turning into a prawn as a result of his contamination, and he is detained by MNU for experiments. He inevitably escapes and then we have our movie.
The movie shifts fairly effortlessly in and out of the mockumentary format and it works. The CGI of the prawns works very well with the format but it is difficult to see any reason to feel remorse for them at first, they seem a very troublesome and detestable species. Only Christopher Johnson and his child who work with Wikus later in the plot seem show any promise for the prawns, and they are both characters that are fortunately suitably sympathetic. It is difficult much of the time to appreciate the way Wikus thinks, he hates the prawns just like everyone else does, though he of course begins to come around, and it is certainly quite interesting to see his fundamentally flawed and sheltered character deal with being the number 1 fugitive in Africa.
In many ways the imagery of “District 9” is certainly quite provocative. During the eviction raid, Wikus spies a shack filled with prawn eggs. He promptly requests a flamethrower and remarks on the popping sound coming from the shack, it turns out it is the eggs popping, “like popcorn”.
As I’ve said the plot is very interesting mostly, though the final stage of the film does away with the great writing and satire and instead delves into extended action sequences. It isn’t that the action is particularly boring but the rest of the film is such an unexpected treat that I sort of wished it hadn’t decided to waste time shooting things and spreading blood over camera lenses and delved more into the stuff I really enjoyed. I want to see more scenes like where Christopher witnesses the experiments that have been conducted on his people. I’m amazed that Neill Blomkamp was able to make me feel for these so very ugly creatures, but he did, so he should use this unrequited talent more often!
The last half hour does disengage somewhat as if the film feels mean for withholding the action we obviously came to see. That said, I still very much appreciated the tantalising experience I was provide for just over an hour, I just wished that Blomkamp had followed through.
That gun that can explode humans into a wishy-washy mass of red goop is pretty fun though