Fresh off the back of a highly visible viral marketing campaign, and with posters and trailers adorned with the portentous tag of ‘Peter Jackson Presents…’, District 9 comes to us amidst an air of quiet expectation. We do have expectations, given that the WingNut team behind Lord of the Rings is hidden somewhere in the film’s background, but we are quiet in our anticipation in light of the fact that this is a directorial debut, and which director ever gets it right first time?
This was my assumption, and what an ignorant assumption it was. Not only does Neil Blomkamp get it right, he gets it perfect, satisfying the sci-fi viewer’s need to see-shit-blown-up whilst creating a visually stunning world and a layered, fascinating mythology. Alongside The Hurt Locker, you simply won’t find a more complete action film this year.
The premise is simple and brilliant. Some years ago (twenty according to trailers), an alien ship broke down over Johannesburg, South Africa, and for largely dubious reasons the authorities decided to ferry the ailing creatures down to Earth to be housed in a giant slum, the titular District 9. Through a series of superbly realistic faux interviews and news reports – a directorial motif that continues throughout the film – we learn, basically, that alien and human do not get on, and the action begins as field operative Wikus van de Merwe and military personnel enter the slum in order to evict and re-house the creatures (derogatorily referred to as ‘prawns’). From there, it is safe to say, things get rather ugly.
The links with South Africa under apartheid are obvious and ever-present. From the ‘For Humans Only’ signs made famous by the film’s marketing campaign, to the faux interviews that could easily be used in conjunction with the country’s time of racial segregation (‘I just want everyone watching this…to learn from what has happened’), it is clear that Blomkamp is out to make a point, and it is a welcome one. Amidst more recent and ‘popular’ political hot potatoes, the significance of apartheid has been somewhat lost on modern cinema, and if it takes a sci-fi film from a fledgling director to bring the point up again, so be it. A superbly realised slum (filmed on location in real-life impoverished townships and neighbourhoods) is the backdrop for human-alien relations which range from patronisation and manipulation to verbal and physical abuse, and it is a credit to both the actors and the visual direction that the scenes of alien mistreatment are as uncomfortable (and sometimes harrowing) as they are.
As the protagonist Wikus, Sharlto Copley stays on just the right side of melodrama as his character takes a monumental and bleakly epic fall from grace, whilst Jason Cope, playing a UKNR Chief Correspondent in the interview sections is the voice of reason amidst all the chaos. Cope in fact also provides the voices for the alien ‘prawns’, which are perhaps the film’s greatest technical triumph in all of their seven-foot, clicking glory. Indeed, much has been made of the film’s visual effects, and when all is said and done this is a visually driven action flick which will bring in big audiences and satisfy their basic need to see explosions. Aliens that can slice a man’s arm off? Check. Lightning guns that vaporise heads into bursts of human slurry? Check. Mechanized battlesuits catching missiles in mid-flight? Check. It’s all there, and if you want to switch off from all of the political undertones (and why not?), you can get lost in what is simply a brilliantly fun action bonanza.
I fear though, that this would be missing the point. For where District 9 is most effective is in its rendering of humanity, a rendering which is made all the more affecting in that it resides in creatures from another planet. The assertions and re-assertions of the aliens that they ‘just want to go home’ hit a strange note of poignancy, whilst the film’s finale speaks of a touching and unswerving hopefulness (as well as the welcome hint of a sequel). Sure, I longed for the mythology of the aliens to be fleshed out slightly, and the slum itself should have been more populated given that over a million creatures were residing there, but these are mere niggles from someone who just wanted to see more. This is my film of the year, and Neil Blomkamp is the next big thing.