RACISM AN ALIEN CONCEPT
DISTRICT 9’ IS CLEVER TAKE ON AN OTHERWORLDLY BIAS
A BLOODY, GALVANIZING THRILLER that delivers an unfortunate mixed message through the “alien apartheid” metaphor of its clever premise, “District 9” arrives in theaters today on a wave of hype about its lack of hype.
“Why ‘District 9’ Will Blow Your Mind — All About the Must-See Movie of the Summer,” is the blurb on the cover of the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, which headlines the inside story with this claim: “Haven’t heard of ‘District 9’? By next week, it may be all you talk about.” (Apparently, the editors of Entertainment Weekly don’t think their readers are particularly inventive conversationalists.)
Much buzzed and Twittered about since its fanboy-stoking preview in July at San Diego’s Comic-Con International (the world’s largest gathering of fantasy, science-fiction and comic-book fans), “District 9” deserves the advance hosannas, to a point.
Shot in South Africa on a relatively modest budget of about $30 million, the film stars a novice actor, Sharlto Copley (who takes about as much abuse as anyone onscreen since Marilyn Burns in the original “The Texas Chain SawMassacre”), and was directed by feature newcomer Neill Blomkamp, whose TV commercials impressed the movie’s producer (and the only “name” associated with the film), Peter Jackson, director of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
A mordant mash-up of “The Office” and “Alien Nation” (a 1988 film also about human-alien “racism”), the movie begins as a faux documentary, constructed from talking-heads interviews and news and surveillance-camera footage. But Blomkamp doesn’t try to sustain this illusion, frequently cutting to scenes that aren’t being filmed by anyone within the movie; this suggests the “Cloverfield” vibe was as much a cost-cutting device as a stylistic and narrative choice.
Written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, the film establishes that a huge alien spaceship has been hovering above Johannesburg for the past 20-plus years. The aliens discovered inside the apparently disabled craft were not invaders but, essentially, “boat people”: Malnourished, desperate and mysteriously abandoned. Dubbed “prawns” because of their resemblance to large, bipedal shrimp, these extremely un-humanlike creatures with a guttural, clicking language and a taste for meat and cat food quickly were segregated, apartheid-style, into shantytown projects that inevitably devolved into crime-ridden slums. Outside their ghettos, the “prawns” are met with suspicion and hostility. (“No Non-Human Loitering” is a typical street sign.)
The alien districts are operated by a private contractor, Multi-National United, which is more interested in the aliens’ advanced weaponry than in their welfare. Exploiting anti-alien public opinion, MNU decides to transfer the “prawns” into a Guantanamo-like containment facility. An uncomprehending MNU stooge of a field operative, Wikus van der Merwe (Copley, who is superb), is put in charge of the relocation effort.
After Wikus is contaminated by a transforming alien liquid (he grows a claw, like in the 1958 “The Fly,” and loses his teeth, like in the 1986 “The Fly”), the film becomes less a social satire and more an action-packed conspiracy/chase thriller — even a conventionally “unconventional” buddy picture, as Wikus befriends a scientist prawn known as “Christopher Johnson” (this is what might be called the alien’s “slave name”). The robotic climax is “Transformers” done right.
Technically, “District 9” is utterly convincing, even amazing, thanks to the (as usual) better-than-Hollywood creature effects of Jackson’s New Zealand-based WetaWorkshop, the gritty detail of the production design and the verve and flair of Blomkamp’s direction. The action sequences — including police-style violent shoot-outs between MNU mercenaries and Nigerian gangsters — make those in the summer’s big-budget blockbusters look as unreal and ridiculous as they are.
Still, the movie’s supposed message of tolerance is confused, demonstrating that specific metaphor in fantasy is harder to pull off than the open-ended allegory of, say, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” One can imagine the Aryan Nation endorsing the idea that a single drop of alien blood can turn a human being into a “monster,” and that “race mixing” would thus mean the end of humanity, even if the film demonstrates that Wikus’ contamination is the key to his redemption.
It’s also troubling that all the black African characters in “District 9” are thugs, gangsters and even cannibals, with none of the dignity of the “prawns.” A young white suburbanite might emerge from a screening thinking that aliens are cool, but, y’know, black folks are really scary.
Little-known actor Sharlto Copley (center) is the central character in “District 9,” a much-hyped alien-encounter film with social overtones.
An alien becomes a virtual political captive a la Guantanamo in “District 9.”