I hated the trailer for District 9. It looked like yet another sci-fi crapfest of the Transformers school. My net nerd friends had done nothing to help with their constant insistence that District 9 was going to be “awesome”—a prognostication they espoused for reasons I never understood (because it was a hit at Comic-Con?). They knew no more about it than I did, had never seen anything by director Neill Blomkamp and had never heard of anyone in the cast. Then circumstances forced me to screen District 9 at 10 in the morning. I was absolutely primed to hate this movie. However, it turns out that I pretty much loved it—and, yeah, it could qualify as awesome.
I actually can’t say exactly what I expected District 9 to be, but it had little relation to the film itself. I think I was expecting dumb sci-fi action tarted up with obvious allegories to apartheid (thanks to its South African setting) and branches leading toward broader vistas of prejudices. I suppose it does fulfill the second, but much more effectively than I expected. But it’s never even close to dumb sci-fi action, though it does contain action. There was nothing about the trailer or the word on the net to suggest that District 9 might have a solid story and some characters with a little depth—yet, it has both. And that’s what really makes the film remarkable.
If you’ve followed the film’s existence at all, you’re probably aware of the premise. For those who aren’t: Years ago an alien spacecraft appeared in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the aliens therein—incapable of getting back to their own world—were placed into a kind of internment camp called District 9. This was done not in the least because the aliens were markedly—even unpleasantly—different from us, being something like a cross between an insect and a crustacean. It didn’t help that dietary habits were unsettling—a propensity for canned cat food will do that. In any event, District 9 has become a horrible slum filled with criminal activities and possible revolutionary activities, so the aliens are to be moved to a new camp farther away from the city.
In charge of this is a none-too-bright and spectacularly unenlightened civil servant, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who has no particular qualifications except that his wife, Tania (Vanessa Haywood), happens to be the daughter of a cabinet minister. Wikus views this as his big chance and barges right into District 9, as if getting the aliens—whom he regards as less than human—to sign away their property and agree to move elsewhere is merely a matter of form. Not surprisingly, things aren’t that simple—especially when he comes across a particularly bright alien—and Wikus quickly makes a hash of things, as well as spraying himself in the face with a strange liquid discovered in the alien’s shack. Anyone with a working knowledge of science fiction knows more or less where this is going. What’s interesting is the way the movie does it and what it does with it.
Having established Wikus as prejudiced against the aliens, the inevitable change he undergoes becomes a sci-fi variant on the 1970 Melvin Van Peebles’ film Watermelon Man, in which a white racist (Godfrey Cambridge in white makeup) finds himself transformed into a black man (Godfrey Cambridge without makeup). (Yes, the idea has cropped up elsewhere, but that’s the origin.) The approach to the change is a weird blend of Cronenbergian body horror (especially The Fly) with a nod to the 1959 version of The Fly and possibly The Quatermass Experiment (1955)—and a dose of the kind of gross-out humor one finds in producer Peter Jackson’s early horror comedies. There are other connections to Jackson’s films. Wikus is ultimately not very different from the hero of Jackson’s 1992 splatter comedy Dead Alive (aka Braindead), while the officials here are similar to a number of Jackson characters.
While Jackson’s fingerprints are obviously on District 9, Blomkamp has his own agenda, points and style. There’s a depth here and a kind of character growth that’s removed from Jackson’s comedic counterparts. Wikus grows from an unlikable, ineffectual character into one who has understanding forced on him—and grows from this into a weird kind of heroism that’s surprising in that it’s as touching as it is satisfying.
There’s also a complexity of events that’s far ahead of what you may expect from the film. This is no throwaway effects fest, but instead it’s a story worth telling that happens to require effects. In other words, the effects support the story, which is the way it should be. If what you’re looking for is a Transformers or Independence Day, this is not the movie for you. But if you’re looking for a film with a heart and a soul that isn’t afraid to examine the essence of what it means—and what it might cost—to be human, District 9 is the movie to seek out. Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language.