If aliens ever visit our lovely planet, do you think they would be impressed or disgusted by the human race? I don’t mean in regards to our rampant, illogical racism or our obsession with killing one another. I’m talking specifically about YouTube. As an advanced race of super-intelligent beings emerge from the stars and finally make first contact, what are the odds that the rest of us will be gawking up with our iPhone’s instead of giving them a warm welcome. “Hey Trisha! Chek out this vid! WTF???” we’ll SMS to one another (or at least people who know someone called Trisha). What would get more hits? The alien invasion or that video of the laughing baby?
District 9 is an invasion movie for the YouTube generation. Director Neill Blomkamp does not lower himself to TMZ depths with his feature film debut, but instead delivers a potentially accurate account of alien/human relations through the use of interviews, news reports, CCTV footage and embedded reporters. All of it has been faked (obviously), but Blomkamp makes his sci-fi drama feel like an Errol Morris documentary. Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson hypothesise that if aliens were ever to visit Earth, they would be rounded up and held in inhospitable refugee camps. An interesting theory, although it implies that human-kind is calm enough to respond to the unknown without launching countless nuclear missiles.
According to the film, an alien ship arrived over Johannesburg, South Africa more than twenty years ago. Discovered aboard the ship were numerous malnourished alien-beings referred to as Prawns, due to their Prawn-like appearance (racism has never been particularly inventive). With the world’s eyes on the South African government, the mostly-peaceful aliens were segregated from the human population and held in an area designated District 9. Over the years D9 turned into a ghetto of nightmares; slums that would make the cast of Slumdog Millionaire feel so lucky they’d likely break into another rendition of ‘Jai Ho’. Under the rule of MNU (a privately contracted division with plenty of secrets), a decision is made to move the prawns from D9 to the cleaner, smaller District 10. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is hired to lead the transition. And then…ah, I really shouldn’t give any more away.
District 9 is one of the greatest surprises I’ve been treated to in a long time. The trailers imply a sort of sci-fi mockumentary with the not-so-hidden agenda of discussing the rights of illegal aliens. Fear not. Although the film is dripping in satire, Blomkamp is more concerned with delivering a balls-to-the-wall action film. District 9 has more in common with Aliens than Babel. Much like James Cameron’s sci-fi classic, Blomkamp builds an entirely believable universe with detailed alien creatures and some absolutely crazy extraterrestrial weaponry. The film is actually pretty damn funny as well, and harkens back to Jackson’s pre-Lord Of The Rings days; back when he used to make all those goofy, gory films like Bad Taste. The number of people that are liquefied or decapitated in District 9 almost becomes too great to count.
Sadly, the action comes at a price. The central premise of an alien refugee camp is terribly intriguing, but it is all but abandoned fairly early. The same goes for the film’s documentary style, which only re-emerges when it suits Blomkamp. He doesn’t commit to the cinema verite style as Matt Reeves did with the underrated Cloverfield. While the picture has some incredible action sequences, it feels as if Blomkamp didn’t know how to work it into a documentary form. The inconsistency is distracting at times, which is a shame because District 9 is genuinely special.
What mostly separates District 9 from other action films is the excellent character work. It was a bold move casting Copley in the lead role. Wikus is dorkish, cowardly and sometimes just plain mean. Imagine a South African version of Steve Carell in The Office. This guy shouldn’t be an action hero, but somehow it works. His journey is the film’s central narrative, and his character’s evolution is both thrilling and touching. Also impressive is the characterisation of the prawns, most notably an intelligent engineer named Christopher who teams up with Wikus (for reasons I wouldn’t dare spoil). It is possibly one of the first times that a CG character and a real-life actor have engaged in a truly believable relationship on film. Jar Jar, eat your heart out.