District 9 is a stunning debut feature-length movie from director Neill Blomkamp, which will hopefully become a significant milestone to a very successful future career. He was originally hired by Peter Jackson to direct the Halo movie, but apparently when that fell through Jackson’s wife suggested that he turn his short film “Alive in Joburg” into a feature. Happily, it means that instead of yet another bland interpretation of an existing franchise, we’re blessed with this visceral look at the inner workings of racial discrimination.
The premise of the movie is that a large population of aliens find themselves stranded above the city of Johannesburg, and unlike the aliens depicted in most other fiction – running around with laser guns trying to take over the world – these ones arrive in bad shape and need humanitarian aid. The area where they live turns into a slum, and they become a significant drain on the city’s resources, which causes a social rift.
Opponents of “shaky-cam” won’t be too happy, but the movie is shot documentary style, not to help you pretend that you’re right there in the thick of the action, but to evoke the feeling that these are real events being recorded. It works well here for this reason. Then there’s the script, which features honest dialogue, characters that act and react like people in real life (rather than the caricatures usually depicted on film) and an intellectually stimulating and unique perspective on an important human social issue.
But the real success of District 9 lies in the way that all of the not-insignificant sci-fi elements (aliens, technology, conspiracy theories, CGI, etc.) all take a back-seat to the unfolding drama. After only a very brief exposition, the tension caused by the inter-species* divide is ratcheted up a notch. And then another. And then another. My hand still has the teeth marks from where my wife was biting it from the sheer terror of suspense. In concentrating all of this tension on the main character of Wikus van der Merwe though, it does go a bit too far with the number of times he gets into a scrape, and then out of it again always right at the last minute (including one very literal version of Deus Ex Machina).
Otherwise, the movie ticks all of the right boxes in my book: it’s a riveting human drama; it features authentic people acting in realistic ways; it leaves just the right amount up to the imagination; it focuses on the important elements of the story, not things which look great on camera or entertain for the sake of it; it doesn’t rely on celebrity casting; and it’s just bloody fantastic! Go and see it right now.
* Race is to racial what species is to… special. English is so insufficient at times.
On a separate note: one thing that I’m curious about is whether people who are ignorant of, or are too young to remember Apartheid, would get the same message from this movie as those of us who do. For me, the racist connotations are as clear as a bell, but maybe there’s a possibility that the video-game generation might simply see this as a story about a guy being caught up between two factions (the MNU and the Nigerians)? After all, that’s really the purpose of this movie right, to spark a discussion about racism?
Post your thoughts in the comments!