April 21, 2011

District 9 (2009)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood, David James

What it's about. This science fiction film also qualifies as a mockumentary and black comedy. We begin with an Alien Nation premise of aliens among us, but they are predominantly quarantined into a single slum in South Africa. They are there because that is where their mothership travelled two decades ago, and has hovered there ever since, motionless.

The aliens resemble prawns, but they are seven feet tall, walk upright, and are extremely fast and strong. Most appear to be violent and uneducated, but two important exceptions are Christopher and his pre-adolescent son. The pair have turned their shack into a command center that can communicate with the mothership. All they need is fuel (a thick black liquid) to connect to the ship and return to their home planet. Unfortunately, the fuel can be obtained only in drabs from junked alien technology.

The aliens are CGI overlaid onto live action.

After many years of toil, Christopher and his son have accumulated a cannister of fuel, enough to return home. Alas, the cannister is confiscated by Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a human and middle manager at MNU, an evil corporation devoted to the confinement and relocation of the aliens. Wikus is a dufus who shares the general contempt that humans have for the aliens. He has a beautiful, loving wife (Vanessa Haywood) and a ruthless father-in-law (Louis Minaar). The latter is a top MNU official.

Wikus is contaminated by the cannister, and because it is a movie, begins to turn into an alien. His gradual metamorphosis from human to alien makes him important to MNU, since he can operate alien weaponry. Humans cannot, since the weapons are keyed to alien DNA. Once Wikus realizes what MNU has in store for him, he goes on the run, and hides out in the one place where he can find a level of acceptance. That is District 9, the alien internment camp.

Because it is a movie, Wikus again stumbles upon Christopher (keep in mind the camp has 1.8 million aliens), who, because he is clever, recognizes that only the all-important missing cannister could have turned Wikus. Christopher and Wikus begin an unlikely alliance that leads to the recovery of the cannister and a return to the mothership. But first Wikus must fend off MNU mercenaries, led by relentless tough guy David James.

How others will see it. This action movie was an immediate box office hit, and drew critical praise as well. It was nominated for four Oscars, but the big surprise was that two of them were for Best Picture and best adapted screenplay.

At imdb.com, the film is a big favorite, and currently ranks within that website's Top 250. It is unsurprising that males under 18 give it the highest ratings (8.7 out of 10), but even women over 45 grade it a respectable 7.4. The aliens are disgustingly ugly, but we feel sorry for them, since they are so mistreated by their human overseers.

How I felt about it. Is District 9 a comedy, or a sci-fi thriller with comic relief? The answer lies in the character of Wikus. He is a bumbler, who knows just enough to get himself into increasing trouble. Sharlto Copley plays Wikus as a fool, excited by his promotion, eager to do a good job, but ultimately incapable.

Copley knows the movie is a comedy. So does the director, the formerly obscure Neill Blomkamp, a young white native of South Africa whose background is in visual special effects. The name of the producer, Peter Jackson, is much more familiar, since he was the director of the overrated but extremely successful The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson's true masterpiece came years earlier, in Heavenly Creatures (1994).

Obviously, District 9 is no mere science fiction adventure. It has much to say about prejudice. The aliens are grotesque and seem none too bright. But Christopher is smart, which shows you can't prejudge them. Environment is nearly everything, after all.

Is there a parallel between the human prejudice toward the aliens, and white prejudice toward blacks? After all, the story is set in South Africa, a nation notorious throughout the 1980s for its segregation of blacks into shanty towns, similar in appearance to District 9. The most infamous of these was called District 6.

Humans consider the aliens to be stupid, because most of them act that way. But they are uneducated and impoverished. If the aliens are stupid, then how come their race was able to travel to another solar system and visit Earth? It appears that humans don't want to ponder such aspects, and simply want to enjoy their higher status relative to the aliens, sanctified and enforced by human law. This is Apartheid in a nutshell.