Are we (being the humbles souls here at Transbuddha HQ) fans of Neill Blomkamp? After over five years of posting the man’s work, I should certainly say so. I’ll admit that I’ve been ready for “District 9″ (a vastly expanded take on his “Alive in Joberg” short) since the moment it was announced, and with each subsequent media tease I had no doubt my faith in the man’s storytelling ability would be very much affirmed. Well, Team ‘Buddha caught the press screening a few weeks back, and I have to say: Not just ‘yes’, but ‘hell yes’. If you have any interest in well thought-out, aptly handled sci-fi with far more brain than (though considerable and awesome) brawn, then I highly recommend going to see “District 9″ right about now.
The “alien invaders as metaphor” has been done to death. There’s a long history of using alien races as metaphor for cultural anxieties both internal and external, with the results ranging from iconic (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) to moronic (“V”). So how badly do we need yet another take on such an event’s effect on the world? Prior to “District 9,” I’d have said not at all. But longtime short-film and commercial whiz Neill Blomkamp has taken a story in which most of the elements are familiar (as evidenced by Eric’s slideshow breakdown and Trey’s pan of the movie), and made them wholly his own. For those of you who have been utterly disconnected from the Internets for the last few months, the plot is summed up thusly:
Twenty years ago, a massive spaceship appeared above the South African city of Johannesburg. After weeks with no communication (or discernible activity) from the ship’s inhabitants, the SA government (along with the UN) worked their way into the ship to find hundreds of thousands of malnourished refugee worker aliens living in squalor. The aliens are encamped in District 9 (a none-too-subtle allusion to Cape Town’s very real District 6), a shanty town ghetto that soon becomes something not unlike a Third World unto itself. As the film begins, The ‘prawns’ (as the Joburg citizens derisively refer to them) uneasy relationship with their hosts has pushed tensions to a boiling point and the MNU (a multi-national corporation tasked with seeing to the aliens) is gearing up to forcibly relocate the unwelcome refugees to a new camp farther away from the human populace.
Which is where Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) comes into play, and make no mistake: This movie is 100% about Wikus, a congenial (if a bit hapless) bureaucrat whose family connections have put him in charge of the entire relocation. We’re given Wikus’s view of the world via documentary footage and interviews as he begins the process of informing District 9′s residents of their impending move. This is where Blomkamp rests the entire crux of the film: In showing us a man whose upbringing and experiences allow him to cheerfully (and enthusiastically) commit otherwise horrific actions against a race that illustrate the very essence of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”. Wikus isn’t tricking an unintelligent populace into agreeing to relocate out of some sense of spite or evil: It’s just his job. Likewise, the blase manner in which he destroys a hatch of alien eggs is less evidence of intent than a man who has made the necessary cognitive dissonance of his profession work for him. It’s as if his upbeat description of the sound made by burning eggs to the cameraman are there to soothe himself as much as the viewer. Wikus isn’t a bad man; he loves his family, he reacts in horror when the inevitable reaction to eviction results in violence against both the aliens and security forces, but he’s not exactly working off an altruistic moral compass.
As the trailers make no bones showing, Wikus is exposed to an alien virus, and this is where the film really begins. His infection is slowly re-writing his genetic code, remaking him into a prawn. All he wants is to go back to normal, but the MNU (who have so far been unable to work with the alien’s biologically based technology) have other plans, setting off a nightmarish chain of events that erupt into a three-way mini-war between Wikus, the MNU security forces, and Nigerian warlords all looking to capitalize on the alien technology. But we’ll get back to our new pal Wikus…
After a certain point, there’s not a whole lot of ‘there’ there in regards to the story, but in this case I call it a good thing: Blomkamp & Co. never try to bog you down with needless backstory or big revealing explanations. So much is left to your imagination that a goodly portion of the drive home was spent in trying to suss out what kind of race the aliens were, and how they got into this situation in the first place. After years and years of brain-numbingly stupid reveals and half-assed backstories in sci-fi, I’m glad they went with the less-is-more approach. It might be a little less satisfying to those with nagging curiousity, but it’s far more intellectually engaging without seeming cheap or contrived. For the less intellectually inclined, the film’s entire last thirrd is given over to one hell of an action-fest that never once finds itself bogged down in Bay-esque confusion or ridiculousness.
Simply put: The look and feel of this film is astounding. Unlike some other big-budget FX-fests (Oh, let’s say “Terminator Salvation” or “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), the CGI onscreen in “District 9″ looks achingly good. Blomkamp knows that the trick to making a world real is to force the audience to simply accept the aliens (and their technology) as being real is to make them background elements in the frame, not the constant focus. There’s no point where your brain screams “no” at cartoonish imagery; indeed half the time you’re trying to figure out if the filmmakers were using props or CGI. The look of the film is gritty and rough, just like you’d want it to. The physics of things are well thought out, and the action (once it gets rolling) simply does not let up. Longtime Peter Jackson fans should find a lot to love in Blomkamp’s willingness to show us the gory aftermath of alien technology upon humanity’s rather fragile frame, and in fact I was continually shocked at how this film could be so brutal without ever seeming gratuitous (unlike say, “Watchmen”).
Let’s face it: Everything my age group learned about South Africans came from either “Lethal Weapon 2″ or “The Power of One.” So setting the film in his home of South Africa not only allowed Blomkamp to avoid the cliche of how the U.S. would react, but it drives home the underlying metaphor (which can allude to aparthied or Israel/Palestine as one sees fit) with far more effectiveness. By giving audiences a point of view far removed from “Lethal Weapon 2″‘s Fatty McEvil or Hotty McHotty, to say nothing of “Power of One”‘s Well-meaning McWhitey, “District 9″ lets us find our similarities with the SA denizens, rather than our differences. And while Eric thought the opening backstory a bit heavy-handed, but I found the CNN style to work astoundingly well at showing the racial tensions at the street level rather than some grander disapproving narration. It’s the best way to set the scene for Wikus, and it’s those opening sequences that make him work as a character.
And as I said earlier: This film belongs to Sharlto Copely’s Wikus. For a non-actor, Copely knocked this out of the park. Hell, there aren’t many actors I could see making use of this character the way Copely did, and that’s just one more high mark for Blomkamp, who insisted on Copely’s taking the role. Wikus feels very, very real. And just as the film refused to give you some emotional pay-off, Copely (who improvised good chunks of the film) never gives us the standard ‘man sees the light’ transition. Every single decision made over the course of this film is 100 percent tied to Wikus’ sense of self-preservation. There’s no altruism, no real concern for the plight of the aliens. Indeed, there are multiple points in which Wikus quite willfully abandons his now-genetic kin, only reversing his decisions because he knows he needs their help. It’s a ballsy choice – giving us a ‘hero’ for whom the word can hardly apply, but it works. And it works beautifully. This is the same reason I’ll defend Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”, another film in which the main character doesn’t so much change as realize what a complete shit he’s been and that there’s nothing to be done about it. I can’t think of the last time a sci-fi film gave us a central character who felt so real and grounded in humanity as the events onscreen become more and more unworldly. It’s exactly that ‘kind of a bastard’ quality that makes me like Wikus, and it’s Wikus that, more than fantastic effects and a great story, that really makes me love “District 9.”
I have no doubt that, while it won’t break box-office records like the sci-fi-in-name-only “Transformers 2,” “District 9″ will very quickly find its place at the top of many best-of lists, both for the year and otherwise. And furthermore, I have no doubt that Neill Blomkamp has a long and promising film career ahead of him.