It’s been twenty-eight years since aliens made first contact, but they didn’t come as saviors, rulers, or destroyers (sorry, Mr. Wells). They came as refugees.
In 1982, a massive spacecraft stops directly above the South African city of Johannesburg, bearing in its belly the sickly remnants of an alien race. The aliens – disdainfully referred to as “prawns” - are exiled to District 9, a rigid containment zone on the fringes of Jo’burg, while world leaders argue about how to handle their unearthly visitors. Years go by with no decision reached, and as human-alien relations grow increasingly volatile, a private military company named Multi-National United steps in to assume control of the situation.
Not surprisingly, MNU is far less interested in the aliens’ welfare than it is in attempting to harness their bio-technology. When one MNU agent – Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) – accidentally unlocks the secrets of the extraterrestrial weaponry, he finds himself targeted by his employers. Hunted and harried, Wikus finally retreats to the last place he ever wanted to go: District 9.
“When dealing with aliens…
Filmmakers have theorized about “first contact” for decades. What would happen if aliens paid a visit to earth? Would they try to destroy it (The War of the Worlds)? Occupy it (Battlefield Earth)? Save it (The Day the Earth Stood Still)? Director Neill Blomkamp suggests a vastly different answer in District 9. In doing so, he may well have given us the best aliens-to-earth flick we’ve seen yet.
What began as a six-minute short film - Alive in Joburg (2005) - turned into something much bigger with help and funding from Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson). Blomkamp was originally slated to direct Jackson’s adaptation of the Halo video-game franchise; when that project fell through due to lack of financing, they decided to pursue something else. Characters and concepts from Alive in Joburg were expanded on, a feature length story was developed, and thus was born a science fiction film for the ages.
The entire thing was put together on a budget of $30 million – a paltry sum compared to most Hollywood blockbusters. This fact is even more astonishing when you consider what kind of film we’re talking about here. This isn’t some quiet drama taking place on the outskirts of a small country town. This is a sci-fi epic with freakish extraterrestrial technology, chaotic gun battles, a giant spaceship hovering over Johannesburg, and otherworldly creatures you have to see to believe. Blomkamp must know how to stretch his dollar (and I mean really stretch it) because there is not a single frame in this film that indicates a meager budget. No shoddy makeup, no cheap CGI, no hokey cinematography. District 9 is sleek, accomplished, and marvellous to look at. More proof that you don’t need boatloads of cash to mount a technically impressive piece of entertainment.
Like all great sci-fi films, however, District 9 is more than just entertaining. It’s a compelling tale of redemption, anchored by Sharlto Copley’s revelatory performance as Wikus; by proxy, it’s also thoughtful exploration of mass segregation, persecution, and genocide. I’ll refrain from giving away any more of the plot – the less you know going in the better – but I will say that District 9 is an example of science fiction at its most intelligent and challenging.
...always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”
A smile might be cheaper, but sometimes a bullet is more effective. And plenty of bullets (not to mention other devastating projectiles) are expended over the course of the film’s 112 minute running time. District 9 is part social commentary, part alien invasion flick, but it’s all action movie - and when the guns go off, they really go off. The combat sequences in this film - including an incredible 30-minute firefight near the end - pack the kind of staggering, down-for-the-count wallop that most Hollywood action fests could only dream of delivering.
At this point, a warning is probably in order: District 9 is a terrific film, but the faint of heart need not apply. This is gritty, emotionally-wrenching stuff, and it earns every bit of its R-rating with strong gory violence and raw language. If you’re looking for a bit of light sci-fi to go with your popcorn, keep looking. District 9 aims for the heart and the mind, but it also aims for the gut, and when the blows land, they land hard. You might not want to have anything in your stomach when that happens.
A New Classic
You know those films that snatch you up, whirl you into the sky, batter you about, and then return you to earth startled, shaken, and awed? For me, District 9 is one of those films, easily ranking within my top five all-time favorites. The ambitious combination of potent allegory, whiz-bang action, and emotional kapow! comes together so beautifully here that it’s hard not to consider the result a new classic in its genre.