Spending time in District 9 is time well spent

August 16, 2009 at 8:33 am Leave a comment

I’ll admit that I’m not really a fan of the action genre. It’s a genre that generally likes to reinforce the status quo, a status quo that I, for one, am not all that comfortable with. The typical action film usually features Americans as the heroes and foreigners as bad guys. And more often than not the hero is some smart-talking hardass whose prize is a scantily clad woman. Not really my cup of tea. But when I heard that District 9 was set in Johannesburg, South Africa, I thought to myself this could be interesting–combining Africa’s particular brand of history with sci-fi.

District 9 is shot documentary-style with grainy film and lots of fast cuts. Many of the shots are close-ups, getting you right into the action. The special effects are CGI but aren’t overdone–they take a back seat to the story and rightfully so. As far as the plot goes, we follow the life of Wikus van der Merwe, an employee of MNU (a big bad multinational corporation) who is tasked with handing out eviction notices to 1 million illegal aliens (literal aliens). The aliens are stranded on earth with no way to return to their home planet. South African locals fear and discriminate against the foreign intruders, and so they are forced to live in slum-like conditions in District 9, a highly guarded ghetto on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

As the film progresses Wikus the family man and model employee makes some discoveries that drives him to question his loyalties and his values. His is a story of redemption told against the backdrop of a country rife with racial tensions and xenophobia. Its setting in South Africa gives the film a gritty reality and depth that many US action movies lack.Yet District 9 steers clear of preaching at its audience. In fact, it doesn’t offer a political analysis of apartheid era South Africa at all. It offers up just enough real-world tension to give the film added flavour.

I was pleased to see the sold-out crowd so thoroughly engrossed in this film. The aliens, referred to as “Prawns” because of their physical appearance and their enforced scavenge-like behaviours, were like no other aliens I’d ever seen. Yet despite their admitted ugliness and their foreign habits, Blomkamp succeeds in “humanizing” them (for lack of a better term) while still respecting their difference.

And make no mistake, these aliens are quite removed from humans: for one thing they have a sweet tooth for cat-food, and have strength that far outstrips ordinary human beings. Yet they are also vulnerable; frightened by their foreign surroundings, they mistrust humans and generally keep to themselves.

One criticism I would offer is that I would have liked to see stronger female characters. The heroes and villains are all men, and the one female character, Wikus van der Merwe’s wife, is of the “frailty, thy name is woman” variety. This is quite common in action movies, but I thought this film might have done a better job of breaking that particular trope.

There are a few echoes throughout of apartheid-era language: Signs declaring “Aliens forbidden” evoke signs that segregated white and black South Africans. And at one point Kobus, a military man who has a penchant for killing aliens, declares “one bullet, one ‘Prawn'”, a twist on a political chant that was popular in the late 90s among black freedom fighters: “one bullet, one Boer” (Afrikaners, a white minority group who held political power over the majority black population from the 1950s to 1994, are also known as ‘Boere’).

The most touching part of the movie for me was the unlikely bond that forms between Wikus, the alien Christopher, and Christopher’s young son. Their tenderness for one another is surprisingly believable and makes the open-ended conclusion to the film all the more poignant.

To watch an interview with director Neill Blomkamp, click here.

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Entry filed under: Film & Television.

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