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Hardcore Prawn

district9poster_000If you haven’t already seen Alive In Joburg, the short movie on which District 9 is based, you might want to check it out before heading to the cinema to catch out this year’s most original feature, and possibly one of the best alien invasion movies to ever be committed to celluloid. But don’t think that you need to watch Neill Blomkamp’s short before hitting the cinema, as the film on its own is no less impressive.

Part documentary, part action film and part fable showing the darker side of human nature, District 9 takes place in Johannesburg where documentary footage, news feeds and expert interviews tell us that, twenty years previously, an alien ship came to a stop over the city. With no apparent reason, an exploratory mission to the ship finds it full of sick aliens with no leader, who are given a home in a refugee camp underneath the ship, the District 9 of the title. Twenty years later, racial tensions are rife between humans and the aliens (given the derogatory name “prawns” because of their appearance), and in an attempt to ease the situation, the government employs the MNU agency (Multi-National United) to evict the aliens and move them to a new camp outside of the city. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is placed in charge of the field operation by his father-in-law and boss, but things go awry when he is exposed to a black fluid from an alien weapon, the film taking on a much more personal tone as Wikus develops an illness only the aliens might be able to help him with.

district-9-2This is the debut feature from director Neill Blomkamp, whose special effects experience had earned him the role as director of a movie based on the popular Halo video-game franchise, spinning off from the Landfall shorts: District 9 was born when Halo fell through, with producer Peter Jackson deciding to continue with Blomkamp’s big break. With Jackson on board, and Blomkamp’s own experience, the film’s effects are successful with creating an immersive world in which the humans and the aliens live side-by-side. The aliens (and their ship) are created using only CGI, a necessity given the aliens’ intricate appearances, but with aliens being some of the most important characters in the film, these effects need to be perfect.

And, for the most part, they are: the alien ship is a constant, looming figure in the misty skylines of Johannesburg, a reminder of the aliens, even when they’re not on the screen; the alien technology is also particularly awesome, with several weapons shown throughout the movie (and, more importantly, their bloody effects), culminating in an alien-styled mech-suit rampaging Iron-Man-style through District 9. The effects are not limited to showy set pieces, though, and are at their most impressive when applied to the characters of the film.

District 9An alien taking the name Christopher Johnson provides the audience and Wikus with a way into the society of the “prawns,” his child bringing the large eyes and cute-inducing factor perfected in the 1980s with E.T.. Christopher is a much more believable and textured character than the fully CGI Jar-Jar Binks or even Peter Jackson’s own previous offering in Gollum, and even though his dialogue is limited to the alien language, consisted of grunts and whistles (translated through subtitles), Christopher provides enough of the film’s emotional weight and drama that he quickly overtakes Wikus as the lead character.

Therein, perhaps, lies District 9‘s greatest achievement: setting aside special effects, the film focuses on the most timeless of science-fiction concerns, and what the sci-fi elements of the narrative reflect back on the human characters and, more importantly, the audience. In the early part of the film, much emphasis is placed on the setting of South Africa, and although apartheid and real-life racial tensions go unmentioned, the parallels are lain on thick. The signs of racism are obvious, with Wikus in particular quick to use the term “prawns” to describe the aliens, even to their faces, and, when he falls ill, the reactions of friends and family are of disgust rather than pity. It’s a sensation that the audience are meant to feel as well, with Wikus undergoing a terrifying physical transformation in the style of The Fly and underpinned with a not-so-subtle message that appearances and actions don’t always merge.

district9pic2This makes District 9 an uncomfortable experience to watch, these racial terms becoming so difficult to set aside: it doesn’t detract from the film’s enjoyment, but rather adds to it, and while other science-fiction films might try to have a moral message, District 9 proves to be the most successful film of recent years to use a science-fiction narrative as a fable, complete with a message that the viewer is meant to learn from. Apparently, aliens work better for creating racial juxtapositions than robots ever did.

Unfortunately, this also proves to be one of the film’s greatest failings, as the racial comparisons are so pervasive that it becomes difficult to see past them and enjoy the moments in the film that are meant to be just entertaining, bloody and gruesome. The film is at its best at the opening and climax, where it adopts a documentary style, creating a thoroughly real-life feel to the events of the story: breaking with this style about twenty minutes in allows District 9 to tell a deeper story, but also provides a jarring break to the flow of the film, jumping again when this style returns for the film’s close and seriously affecting the consistency of the film’s story.

It’s one of the film’s few faults, and otherwise, District 9 is both entertaining, and surprisingly deep, an impressive debut from Blomkamp, and hopefully a promise of something greater still to come from the director. It might even just be good enough that sci-fi haters (if you can convince them to watch) might just watch it through and be suitably impressed.

Zombie Rating: B

District 9 is open in cinemas in the USA now, and will be coming to the UK and Ireland on 4th September 2009.

  1. Paul
    September 4, 2009 at 2:11 PM

    Can’t wait to see this tonight, been waiting a long time for this!

  2. Hedgie
    August 31, 2009 at 5:34 PM

    This film was great; flawed certainly but great.

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