ET go home – and take your twinkling cathedral of a mothership with you. That's the unfortunate attitude of embattled homo sapiens in this entertaining, technically superb if faintly unsatisfying futuristic thriller from the first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp; the producer is that Jedi master of creature features, Peter Jackson. The DNA of action-sci-fi merges with a sleek exo-skeleton of satire to create a smart dystopian movie, excitingly shot in a docu-realist style with some stunningly real CGI work. It's a film in the tradition of Planet of the Apes and Godzilla, with hints of serious pictures such as Children of Men and the less serious Cloverfield. And despite all the ultra-hi-tech sheen, the spirit of Ed Wood Jr lives cheerfully on in some of the prosthetic work.
Not too far into the future, a huge, lumbering spaceship shows up over planet Earth and stops there in the sky, hovering over a 21st-century modern city, and the digital image of that great rusty hulk up in the smoggy heat haze is so gobsmackingly real I suspected Blomkamp must have somehow built a spaceship and flown it up there himself. Terrified and suspicious, our earthling military finally storm the ship to find thousands of crustacean-like alien refugees cowering in the dark, metallic hold, evidently rejected by their home planet. Progressive liberal politicians have no choice but to allow these poor creatures out and let them live in the outskirts of the city, which they turn into a no-go crime slum called District 9.
They are nicknamed "prawns", hated by civilians, police and army. Eventually a smarmy civil servant, played by Sharlto Copley, is tasked with overseeing the mass eviction of the rabid untermensch-aliens, backed by the privatised corporate security militia, and moving them into a huge internment camp outside of town. But a fragment of something appears to have fallen from the still-hovering mothership into this unpoliced swamp, matériel that will allow the aliens secretly to rebuild and extend a cache of biotech weaponry, designed to work only in contact with alien flesh. Clearly, some of these prawns are planning something.
The city in question is the director's hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa, a location that simultaneously enables and renders very self-conscious the movie's satirical dimension. Only a few years after apartheid was abolished in South Africa … well, there they go, you see, bringing it in all over again, criminalising and dehumanising an entire populace with a Soweto-like township and petty discrimination in public parks, restaurants, everything. But just as no one in EastEnders watches EastEnders, no one notices the apartheid parallel here and gasps: "Hah ah-roneeck!"
This overt satire effectively encourages the audience to ask questions the movie is uninterested in answering. Do the aliens unite white and black earthlings in an ironic common front of caste-paranoia? And given that the ANC is in charge in 2009 and that its importance could reasonably be expected to last into the future being imagined here, are we to see black politicians prosecuting this grotesque new discrimination? Not exactly. In this movie, evil whites are in charge, albeit as officers of the all-powerful corporation – and such corporations are often introduced in dystopian sci-fi in a way that sneakily permits the film-maker to avoid getting tangled up in recognisable political realities.
I wasn't sure if Blomkamp is saying that white racism will always recur, or if he is just falling back on stereotypes. Earthling race-politics do not appear to exist, and the only important black character in this movie is a Nigerian crime-lord with cannibal tendencies: yet the whites, presiding over their alien experimentation labs, are as bad, or worse. Finally, I felt the movie's satirical status was a little too easily assumed: basically it's a third-person-shooter-game-cum-action-fantasy, and there are also some pretty heavy-handed plot inventions intended to breed sequels.
But what an action picture it is: the digital effects are so great they make it look like a documentary from hell, and Copley's performance as Wikus van de Merwe, the functionary who must supervise the slum clearance, is tremendous – particularly when he gets up close and personal with the alien prawns, a fatal transgression that is to trigger horrible changes in his own body. The sequences showing his impossibly dangerous sortie into the slum, which he carries off with a bizarre nonchalance indicating that he simply doesn't understand the danger, are hugely tense with some grisly moments. Wikus opens up a shack to show how the alien tenants have killed a cow and are using the blood draining from its carcase to nourish the females' recently laid eggs. The heat and discomfort and fear of these scenes are outstandingly contrived, and Wikus's relationship with the alien insurgent, morphing from suspicion into something like brotherly love, is an effect that owes nothing to CGI.
I suppose there’s no reason the first alien race to reach the Earth shouldn’t look like what the cat threw up. After all, they love to eat cat food. The alien beings in “District 9,” nicknamed “prawns” because they look like a cross between lobsters and grasshoppers, arrive in a space ship that hovers over Johannesburg. Found inside, huddled together and starving to death, are the aliens, who benefit from a humanitarian impulse to relocate them to a location on the ground.
Here they become not welcomed but feared, and their camp turns into a prison. Fearing alien attacks, humans demand they be resettled far from town, and a clueless bureaucrat named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is placed in charge of this task. The creatures are not eager to move. A private security force, headed by van der Merwe, moves in with armored vehicles and flame-throwers to encourage them, and van der Merwe cheerfully destroys houses full of their young.
Who are these aliens? Where did they come from? How did their ship apparently run out of power (except what’s necessary to levitate its massive tonnage?). No one asks: They’re here, we don’t like them, get them out of town. There doesn’t seem to be a lot to like. In appearance, they’re loathsome, in behavior disgusting and evoke so little sympathy that killing one is like — why, like dropping a 7-foot lobster into boiling water.
This science-fiction fable, directed by newcomer Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter (“The Lord of the Rings”) Jackson, takes the form of a mockumentary about van der Merwe’s relocation campaign, his infection by an alien virus, his own refuge in District 9 and his partnership with the only alien who behaves intelligently and reveals, dare we say, human emotions. This alien, named Christopher Johnson — yes, Christopher Johnson — has a secret workspace where he prepares to return to the mothership and help his people.
Much of the plot involves the obsession of the private security firm in learning the secret of the alien weapons, which humans cannot operate. Curiously, none of these weapons seem superior to those of the humans and aren’t used to much effect by the aliens in their own defense. Never mind. After van der Merwe grows a lobster claw in place of a hand, he can operate the weapons, and thus becomes the quarry of both the security company and the Nigerian gangsters, who exploit the aliens by selling them cat food. All of this is presented very seriously.
The film’s South African setting brings up inescapable parallels with its now-defunct apartheid system of racial segregation. Many of them are obvious, such as the action to move a race out of the city and to a remote location. Others will be more pointed in South Africa. The title “District 9” evokes Cape Town’s historic District 6, where Cape Coloureds (as they were called then) owned homes and businesses for many years before being bulldozed out and relocated. The hero’s name, van der Merwe, is not only a common name for Afrikaners, the white South Africans of Dutch descent, but also the name of the protagonist of van der Merwe jokes, of which the point is that the hero is stupid. Nor would it escape a South African ear that the alien language incorporates clicking sounds, just as Bantu, the language of a large group of African apartheid targets.
Certainly this van der Merwe isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. Wearing a sweater vest over a short-sleeve shirt, he walks up to alien shanties and asks them to sign a relocation consent form. He has little sense of caution, which is why he finds himself in his eventual predicament. What Neill Blomkamp somehow does is make Christopher Johnson and his son, Little CJ, sympathetic despite appearances. This is achieved by giving them, but no other aliens, human body language, and little CJ even gets big wet eyes, like E.T.
“District 9” does a lot of things right, including giving us aliens to remind us not everyone who comes in a spaceship need be angelic, octopod or stainless steel. They are certainly alien, all right. It is also a seamless merger of the mockumentary and special effects (the aliens are CGI). And there’s a harsh parable here about the alienation and treatment of refugees.
But the third act is disappointing, involving standard shoot-out action. No attempt is made to resolve the situation, and if that’s a happy ending, I’ve seen happier. Despite its creativity, the movie remains space opera and avoids the higher realms of science-fiction.
I’ll be interested to see if general audiences go for these aliens. I said they’re loathsome and disgusting, and I don’t think that’s just me. The movie mentions Nigerian prostitutes servicing the aliens, but wisely refrains from entertaining us with this spectacle.