Sunday, February 1, 2015
District 9 (2009) puts a unique spin on the alien visitors theme. Most movies featuring humanity's first contact with visitors from outer space either give us the hostile species that wants to wipe us out, like in Independence Day if they're highly advanced or in Alien if they're not, or benevolent beings that guide us to new limits of understanding (2001: A Space Odyssey), try to save us from ourselves (The Day the Earth Stood Still), or instill in us a child-like awe and wonder (E.T.).
District 9 takes us past the discovery, past the first contact, and past the shiny-new-toy phase of alien encounters, picking up twenty-eight years after extraterrestrials arrive on our planet, and these otherworldly beings, bug-like creatures known derogatorily as "prawns," are just another persecuted minority in South Africa, a species confined to poverty, harassment, and confinement in an area outside of Johannesburg after their mother ship arrives and hovers near the city. The fenced-in collection of shacks the prawns (if the movie provides their actual name, I missed it) live in is known as District 9.
The story proper picks up when the government hires Multinational United (MNU), a private military corporation, to clear out District 9 and relocate the aliens to another camp far away from Johannesburg. The government official assigned to lead the operation is Wikus van Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a nerdy, somewhat bumbling bureaucrat with a loving wife (Vanessa Haywood) whose father (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) is Wikus' boss.
While clearing out the shack of a prawn named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son, Wikus is sprayed in the face with fluid from a device Christopher was working on to fix the mother ship. Slowly, Wikus begins changing, transforming into a prawn, and MNU becomes interested because with the alien DNA inside him, Wikus is capable of using the advanced prawn weaponry, something no other human has been able to do. Escaping from the MNU lab and pursued by a nasty MNU mercanary (Koobus Venter), Wikus turns to help from Christopher, who promises he can heal Wikus if they get the device back from the MNU.
In age when so many sci-fi action movies exist only to blow stuff up, it's refreshing that District 9 actually has a deeper level. The mistreatment of the prawns and their confinement to a militarized camp in South Africa is no doubt an allegory for Apartheid, the system of racial segregation in place in South Africa for decades. The prawns, like the black South Africans under Apartheid, see their rights severely restricted and are subject to arrest, torture, exploitation, and murder. This alien species, who arrived on earth sickly and impoverished, is, by the time the movie begins, treated with contempt, resentment, and outright hostility by the native human population, and the film shows a number of humans who say things like the prawns should go back to where they came from, don't deserve equal rights because they're aren't humans, and are a drag on society.
Specifically, the allegory is about Apartheid, but it can be applied to any situation where the ruling body of a country oppresses a segment of the population. Many of these groups - like say, the Nazis - view the group they're oppressing as sub-human, people undeserving of basic human dignity, respect, and protection, making it easier to enact laws against them and commit atrocities. It's the stigma of the other, the group is not like me so I must fear and hate them. Consider all the propaganda and outright lies about minorities. Historically, there's the blood libel against Jewish people, the false claim that Jews use the blood of Christian children in their religious rituals. At one point in District 9, one native African claims the prawns steal human children, something never shown in evidence. Much oppression from a ruling government body succeeds by treating those oppressed as sub-humans, to stigmatize and keep them separate as the "other." District 9 takes this one step further by making the persecuted literally inhuman. In one of the more chilling scenes, Wikus casually burns a shack full of prawn eggs because it's against regulations.
This is where, crucially, District 9 succeeds. Even though the prawns are the creepy-looking, bug-like creatures - a design that probably could work in an alien invasion movie - they come off as sympathetic. The relationship between Christopher and his son is genuinely touching; his son was born on Earth and is excited to see his home planet for the first time, and Christopher will do anything to protect him. The boy even takes a liking Wikus, his alien innocence something that surprises Wikus. The prawns speak in a language that sounds like a lot of clicks, but the movie thankfully provides subtitles, and these beings don't speak in techno-babble jargon or aloof, polysyllabic pronouncements. They talk in a recognizable manner. When one prawn is evicted, he replies with a defiant "Fuck off."
Stylistically, District 9 begins and ends as a mockumentary, featuring talking heads speaking directly to the camera and depicting ostensible news footage or recordings from surveillance cameras. As Wikus and his team issue eviction notices to the prawns, he's accompanied by a camera crew. At first, this is an effective strategy because not only does it convey important background information, but it creates a lived-in believability. Certain moments, like when one soldier's arm is ripped off during the eviction process, are all the more shocking because they have that feeling of immediacy. In that example, the action occurs in a long shot, and the soldier is sent flying out of frame, leaving us to wonder what happened to the rest of him. On a downside, the movie jumps between documentary style and traditional narrative style, and it's not always clear which is which, and it feels like cheating at times. Other times, it's just annoying; when Wikus is on the run, the movie has narrators explain where he's going and why as if we weren't able to figure that out on our own.
The action scenes consist of a lot of shootouts and explosions, true, but the alien weaponry Wikus and Christopher use give them life. The prawn weaponry involves energy blasts that cause soldiers' bodies to go pop, sort of like a more gruesome version of the Martians' heads exploding in Mars Attacks! These aren't fun-looking bullet ballets but desperate fights for survival. At one point, Wikus dons a suit of techno-armor that allows him to take on a swarm of enemies, culminating in the awesome shot of him catching a rocket in mid-air. This does make me wonder why the prawns never utilized their weapons against their human oppressors since they clearly outmatch them physically and technologically.
The movie also has fun sprinkling in little details not often explored in science fiction movies. A black market develops in District 9, in which the aliens trade their weapons for cat food, a substance that is like crack-cocaine for prawns. The movie also tells us inter-species prostitution exists but thankfully refrains from showing us how that works; the one image we see of prawn-human coitus is an in-universe photoshop designed to defame Wikus. There's also a group of humans who believe eating prawns will grant them powers, leading to a subplot in which Wikus is captured by a group of Nigerian criminals who want to chop off his arm (now transformed into a prawn claw) and eat it.
What can't be argued is the performance of Sharlto Copley, who not only gives us a human center to care about at the center of all the sci-fi allegory but also demonstrates a range rarely seen in any movie, genre or otherwise. Copley begins the movie as a not-too-lovable doofus and bureaucrat and transitions to a man terrified by the changes happening to his body and finally to a reluctant but convincing action hero. It's almost as if someone blended Steve Carell from The Office with Jeff Goldblum from The Fly and put the mix inside Robocop, and it's a testament to Copley's talent that he made a potentially incongruous character work every step of the way. Throughout the film, he runs the gauntlet through cheeriness, pettiness, nerdy charm, optimism, disgust, denial, anguish, anger, and heroism. Copley's had some high-profile roles since District 9 (Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy and Disney's Maleficent), and he should be a star for years to come.