Now without a doubt District 9 is a good film, the best of the summer in fact. Granted this has to be one of the worst summer movie seasons in recent history (I’m looking at you Terminator Salvation, Wolverine and Transformers 2) but that shouldn’t distract from the achievements of the film.
District 9 is a smart action film that unlike most, has an actual message. Adapted from director Neil Blomkamp’s own short film “Alive in Joberg
“, District 9 deals with issues of segregation and xenophobia and uses extra-terrestrials as a thinly veiled analogue for the historical treatment of the black population. The title and the premise of District 9 were inspired by historical events that took place during the apartheid era in an area of Cape Town called District 6
In the film, aliens arrived in Johannesburg in 1982 in a large spacecraft which hovers over the city. The aliens were found to be unhealthy and hungry. The creatures (referred to in the film by the derogatory term “Prawns”) were taken from the ship and housed in a government camp called District 9. Two decades later the people of Johannesburg are sick of the prawns and want them out, so the company that manages the facility MNU builds a new camp District 10, 240 km away to house the 1.8 million aliens.
Wikus van der Merwe is the field agent assigned to lead the relocation and begins by trying to get the aliens to sign eviction papers. Whilst in the camp Wikus unwittingly stumbles upon illicit activity and the film builds from there. I won’t give much else away because I hate spoiling films.
District 9 begins very well. The film is shot documentary style, as a film crew is following Wikus and the MNU during the relocation of the aliens. Wikus (played by first time actor Sharlto Copley) is a stereotypical bureaucrat getting his first taste of power. He is also incredibly racist, constantly referring to the aliens as prawns and seeming to revel in humiliating them. He even gets very excited when they burn an alien nest to the ground, pointing out how the burning eggs sound like popcorn.
Wikus is not a likable character at all and it’s says a lot of Copley that he is able to keep you from hating him. Most of his dialogue in the opening scenes is improvised and very funny.
Copley, a director and producer himself, is a longtime friend of Blomkamp and in fact gave him his first job as a graphics designer at the age of 14! Blomkamp was able to hire Copley to play Wikus, as the film had a small budget and was pretty free from studio interference.
He may not be an actor by trade but as I said Copley he is very good and I hope he keeps at it (he’s rumored to have signed on to play Murdoch in the remake of the A-Team).
Neil Blomkamp has created a very impressive looking film for a modest budget ($30 million or roughly 1 tenth the budget of Transformers 2). The aliens (the only other characters of merit in the film) are very impressive (and gross) and are photo real. The alien spaceship is visible in most shots, hovering in the background and also looks completely real. And the big robot gunfight at the end is amazing and according to those that have seen the other big robot gunfight movie this year, better than anything in it (are three pokes at Transformers 2 in one review too much?).
The film is not perfect though. I for one found it un-necessarily gory. Seeing one person explode after being shot by an alien gun is cool but after the 5th or 6th time it’s just OTT (and there were a lot more than that). As I said earlier, the film starts off well with the doco-style but halfway through the film this is dropped almost completely and I missed it. And although the script is very tight and clever it’s a shame that in the third act it becomes a dumb action film and focusses far too much on the above mentioned robot gunfight.
But the biggest criticism I have is the film’s treatment of the Nigerian gang members. I’m not the only one who has pointed out the inherently racist way they are presented. They are shown as superstitious, criminals who want to eat the aliens to steal their power (I’m not making that up). I understand the gangs inclusion in the film but I think for a film about racism, indentifying them specifically as Nigerians was a mistake.
It may seem like I’m being a little harsh on the film and don’t get me wrong I think it’s very good. I just don’t think it’s the second coming of Star Wars that some people have made it out to be. The criticisms I mentioned keep it from being a great film.
I think it says more about the current state of films in general that when a smart film with a message comes out (especially a summer blockbuster) people get so excited about it. I mean big action films don’t really have to be dumb.