by Ryan Hepford inCULTUREAug 10, 2009
If there is a movie emerging from relative obscurity to one of the year's most inventive films, it is Peter Jackson's District 9. Produced by Jackson but directed by his protege Neil Blomkamp, District 9 unconventionally re-examines the fictional interaction between humans and exterrestrials. Filmed on a 30 million-dollar budget primarily spent on special effects, very little was pushed into advertising the movie which in retrospect has added to the film's mysterious allure. Shot in documentary format, the film grabs you from the start and proceeds to take the audience on an intense ride through a drastic turn of events.
The film picks up 20 years after an Alien Spaceship inexplicably stalls over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. The Aliens are extracted from the ship and placed on a temporary reservation called District 9. The exterrestrials are labeled "Prawns", due to their crustacean-like appearance and scavenging behavior. The Prawns have been conditioned to take orders from their home planet and without communication with their superiors lack the capacity of initiating self-direction to fix their own spaceship. While the city decides what to do with the Prawns, District 9 quickly transitions into a Ghetto slum. In the meantime, Johannesburg's citizens become increasingly intolerant and hostile towards Aliens that are stationed in their hometown. The delay in action comes from the Multi-National United Corporation (MNU), whom are trying to disentangle the operation of the Prawns advanced weaponry that can only be initiated by Alien DNA.
Once the MNU confirms the decision to transport the Aliens from District 9 to a designated location outside Johannesburg, the operation is put into the hands of Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). Van De Merwe inherits the position due to his marriage to the MNU's Managing Director's daughter, Tania Van De Merwe (Vanessa Haywood) and is noticeably unprepared for the job. While issuing eviction notices during the relocation process in District 9, Van De Merwe encounters a Prawn shanty containing a large amount of computer parts and advanced chemistry. While investigating the home further, he uncovers a suspicious silver tube that unexpectedly discharges a mysterious black fluid into his face. Visibly shaken, Van De Merwe proceeds with the relocation operation, but within hours falls ill and begins to lose his fingernails and teeth. After being admitted into the hospital, it is uncovered that his arm has shockingly mutated into Prawn arm. Upon this sudden revelation, Van De Merwe is immediately taken into custody by the MNU. With his newly mutated DNA, Van De Merwe is successfully forced to manipulate Prawn guns and becomes the MNU's most important asset in it's ongoing pursuit to operate Alien weaponry. The MNU then proceeds to harvest Van De Merwe's organs for the creation of some sort of human-prawn clone and is taken into surgery where he will be autopsied. Realizing this, Van De Merwe aggressively struggles and escapes the MNU facility, only to begin living in District 9 as a temporary recourse.
While hiding in District 9, Van De Merwe stumbles into the Prawn shack of Christopher Johnson. Johnson is a highly intelligent prawn scientist, who was in the process of developing a fuel cylinder to power a crashed Prawn ship before it was confiscated by Van De Merwe and placed in the MNU's main facility. Christopher assures Van De Merwe that if he regains the cylinder and returns to the stalled mother ship overhead, that he will be able to fix his arm and stop the mutation process. However to re obtain the cylinder, the pair must break into the MNU's facility which initiates an all out war between Van De Merwe and Johnson against the MNU. What makes this movie really resonate is the film's unconventionally imaginative storyline. Dark parallels are noticeably inferred to the hegemonic apartheid system in South Africa that sill remains present under the surface. The MNU is bereft of responsible moral judgment, only impelled by the need to clone a human/prawn to activate Alien Weapons for their own world supremacy. In contrast, the Prawns represent a inferior race unable to adapt, lacking the proper collective knowledge and resources to solve their own current crisis. This sort of unbalance between right and wrong, establishes the space in the story where Wikus Van De Merwe finds himself existing between.
The unexpected character development only adds to the films unique storyline. Van De Merwe's transformation from cowardly, innocuous MNU employee, to desperate mutating prawn braving all opposition, is pulled off so masterfully that his character's authenticity is never questioned. The perceptual development of the Prawns radically evolves during the process of the film as well. Initially these creatures seem unintelligent, barbaric, and unable to adapt to life on Earth. However Christopher Johnson's highly ambitious motives, successfully transmits convincingly human characteristics in his attempt save his own Alien race.
Overall, District 9 was a great surprise in contrast with other over budgeted "Summer Blockbusters" like Transformers and G.I. Joe. At first glance, you could easily dismiss the film as another Alien vs Human narrative, where extraterrestrials try to destroy human beings and the morality of our flight becomes the only pragmatic solution. District 9 inverts this redundancy, presenting Humans as the domineering species and the Aliens playing victims to the dark manifestations of human nature. Though mixing Aliens and Human Beings has always been distant fiction, District 9 displays the duality with little need for imagination and successfully provides a looking glass into the human condition. The film wastes little time in presenting the characters with remarkable adversity and then quickly moving towards resolution. The films documentary-like shooting adds to this fictional reality and never compromising itself. A sequel seems to be insinuated as the film concludes and has the basis of a great follow up to an intial sci-fi classic.