I’m not sure I could claim with utter certainty that District 9 is the best movie of the summer. I didn’t find it as audaciously thought-provoking as I had hoped it would be, and the third act succumbs to a rather typical (though still entertaining) shoot-em-up, complete with a mechanized solder-suit. What I will say is that it’s one of the most unique and inventive movies I’ve seen in a while, a film that doesn’t quite fit the cliches of the many genres it seems to emulate; and in a decade full of sequels and remakes I found myself thoroughly enjoying watching something I realized I had never seen before.
If I could sum up what I thought District 9 was like briefly, I’d tell you it was a well-conceived combination of Independence Day, Iron Man, Hotel Rwanda, and The Fly. It’s certainly a science-fiction film, but it’s put in such a realistic, gritty tone that you’ll hardly recognize it as such.
About twenty years ago, in the film’s history (told in a documentary style), a large alien craft settled over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, and stayed dormant for three years until humans finally cracked their way inside. They discovered rooms full of starving, emaciated alien creatures. Soon a civilization (of sorts) is set up on the ground in a place to be known as District 9, where the aliens are separated from the humans, apartheid style (Johannesburg was clearly chosen for a reason). Tensions mount, people don’t like them, they’re named after a sea shrimp they resemble (prawns); it’s tough being an alien.
Eventually the private weapons manufacturing company charged to oversee the aliens, Multi-National United, decides the aliens need to be moved to a new place, and charge a field operative named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to give the eviction notices. In doing so, he comes across a strange cylinder which shoots black liquid on his face. He realizes within the next few hours that this liquid is altering his genes, and that he is turning into a Prawn. While this is naturally horrifying for him, MNU head-honchos realize this means he can fire the aliens’ DNA-specific weaponry.
The movie is, as I’ve said, original in many ways. For one, the aliens don’t land in Chicago or New York, but South Africa. Meaning they don’t blow up the White House in this one. Second, the alien civilization is shown to be distinctly, well, human. They aren’t all reptilian monster trying to eat us or laser-gunned invaders trying to gun us down, nor are they cute and cuddly E.T.s that snuggle nicely with stuffed animals. They have the good and bad, the black market and crime that come with any slum, as well as those that love and hate. It’s also kind of neat to see people treat the aliens like an everyday occurrence. We see that in more fantastic Star Wars-esque films, where aliens are all over the place, but I can think of few movies where character aren’t in absolute awe at the aliens walking over our homeworld. In this film, everybody’s adjusted to the initial shock. Now there are alien haters, alien rights activists, economies, and all other facets of human civilization entwined with the aliens existence, having developed over two decades.
The film is masterfully directed by Neill Blomkamp, who pulls off both the documentary and shaky-camera war-scene very well. And Sharlto Copley is fantastic as the kind-hearted and frantically terrified Wikus.
The obvious Apartheid analogy doesn’t quite pan out for me, just because the aliens didn’t really want to be around either. They were just sort of stranded. I can also understand why some people would be upset at the money spent towards the prawns when there were humans who could use it as well. But it’s still a harrowing, depressing look at the depravities that can become human nature, and while I felt the film took this a bit too far with just a bit too few good humans depicted (three, to be exact), I really did enjoy this film. It’s not some grand masterpiece, but it is imaginative and original. Which is saying a lot these days.