From an aesthetic and conceptual standpoint, I liked a lot of things about District 9. Director Neil Blomkamp has already proven to be a master of the use of adding special effects (such as aliens) to documentary-style footage to heighten their realism–the grainy, shaky camera work hides a multitude of CGI sins while anchoring the viewer in a familiar, real-world context (well, as “real” as your average news show is these days).
Then there’s the concept. District 9‘s set-up is simple: in the early 1980s, a giant alien mothership appears in Earth airspace. Rather than nuking New York–or even London, or Paris, or Tokyo–it settles over Johannesburg, South Africa, where it proceeds to hover for three months until the local government decides to take action. Drilling into the ship, they discover a million malnourished, sickly insect-like aliens. They take the aliens out of the ship and set up a temporary refugee camp below the vessel, which eventually turns into a permanent residence and, finally, a slum.
The movie begins just as MNU, the private company contracted by the South African government to deal with the aliens–now derisively called “prawns”–has prepared what amounts to a concentration camp fifty miles outside the city and is planning to evict the aliens from the District 9 slum. Heading up the eviction process is Wikus Van De Merwe, a nerdy office type and through-and-through company man (basically a South African version of The Office‘s Michael Scott). Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice to say the eviction does not go as planned.
The best idea in the film is that of the alien slum, though we have seen similar ideas before. However, the MNU’s treatment of the aliens–particularly what goes on behind close doors–is very much par for the B-movie science fiction course. After thinking about the film for a day or two, I decided District 9 represented an incredibly cynical view of humanity. Then I remembered where the title comes from.
Once the plot gets going, District 9 is an intense film. While there were a couple moments I enjoyed on a “damn, that was cool” level, it’s so grounded in the suffering and desperation of Wikus (impressively acted by Sharlto Copley) and the aliens that you never feel like you can just let your lizard brain enjoy the explosions. Quite a different experience than the temporary self-inflicted lobotomy required to get anything out of, say, Transformers 2.
More than one critic has made the obligatory “don’t go looking for any real social commentary here” line in regard to District 9. I think it’s important to point out if Blomkamp had made a documentary about the real District Six, it might have been a better film, but it would have been a better film that hardly anyone in America would see. District 9 is the reason I now know anything about District Six, as well as a little bit more about apartheid. Whether that’s a credit to the filmmakers or a reflection upon me (or Americans in general) is up to you.