Outline (no spoilers)
When an alien spacecraft arrives over Joannesburg, the locals resist the urge to attempt to blow it out of the sky and eventually they discover thousands of malnourished creatures seemingly trapped in the craft. The aliens are brought down and housed in a temporary camp in ‘District 9’ of the city. Several years later the authorities, increasingly alarmed by the growth of the alien population and the potential for civil unrest that contact between aliens and humans is creating, decide to move the aliens to a new ‘settlement’ outside the city. The contract for organising the move is awarded to a faceless private corporation, MNU.
This is a fascinating film if you are interested in science fiction and horror as genres. Everyone is playing spot the references and I’d go back as far as the ‘creature features’ of the mid 1950s (Them, Creature from the Back Lagoon, The Fly and The Incredible Shrinking Man – Philip French identifies Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the first Quatermass movie and the latter is a good call, I think), then on to the revival of some of those films (e.g. The Fly) in the ‘body horror’ period of the 1980s. More recently, the film echoes action films like Iron Man. Then there are the elements from the alien invasion movies with spaceships hovering above the Earth. There is also a link to the satirical use of aliens as giant ‘bugs’ in Starship Troopers, but this time via the kind of documentary approach utilised in Cloverfield. A film I was reminded of a lot is the wonderful Korean monster picture, The Host (2007) which shares several themes with District 9 and even some actual scenarios (e.g. in the operating theatre). There is a direct connection as well as both films feature creatures created by the Weta Workshop in New Zealand.
Science fiction and horror are often close to each other when dealing with narratives like this. District 9 was sometimes more like body horror for me, but that’s possibly because as a squeamish viewer, I often feel revulsion from alien representations. Having said that, the aliens in District 9, the ‘prawns’, eventually become quite sympathetic creatures and I was rooting for them by the end. Before that though, their behaviour is pretty anti-social from a human point of view. This is quite clever in a scripting sense since it suggests that a) these are carnivorous aliens with different attitudes towards flesh-eating and b) that any sentient creatures forced to live in squalor will begin to behave in ‘uncivilised’ ways. In other words, we as an audience are required to think about our relationship to creatures that are both different and also similar to ourselves.
Perhaps the most important difference between this narrative and the ‘action spectaculars’ such as Iron Man, is that District 9 is mostly played ‘straight’ – although I did find the opening irritating with its sense of ‘reality TV’ and a hero who at first seems like a cross between a South African Alan Partridge and David Brent. He gets a lot better as the film moves on and the actor (Sharlto Copley) has been highly praised by critics and popular audiences alike. Too many action pictures are tongue-in-cheek. The best genre pictures are played ‘for real’ and I think that is the case here. The sense of authenticity is also helped by not having the leads played by recognisable Hollywood faces – a real problem for so many South African movies destined for international markets.
Of course, the big question about the film concerns what is achieved by mixing all these familiar elements in a narrative set in Johannesburg, the home city of writer/director Neill Blomkamp? Most reviewers seem to think that the opportunity isn’t really taken up as much as it might be. Pushing the responsibility for removing the aliens onto a private company might be quite realistic, but it doesn’t offer us the interesting dilemma of an ANC leader explaining the policy to the world’s media. The authenticity of the setting does work however and it seemed to me that the film was ‘South African’ in its feel for the environment in the same way that Gavin Hood successfully represents the townships in Tsotsi. Younger viewers may not be aware that the scenes of eviction of the aliens are shot to mirror exactly the ‘clearance’ of illegal settlements under the apartheid regime.
You could perhaps argue that Blomkamp is even-handed in making the ‘bad guys’ brutish Afrikaners and Nigerians, but there have already been complaints from some quarters about the depictions of the Nigerians. I’m not sure about this representation at all. Here’s a useful blog entry followed by a range of comments. I’m interested in the comment on the blog which mentions the Nigerian movies made in South Africa and therefore the suggestion that there is competition between South African and Nigerian filmmakers. I also note comments that see the Nigerians as standing in for the range of refugees from countries like Zimbabwe who have suffered from aggression after their arrival in South Africa. All the same, it is a brave (white) director who offers us images of superstitious/cannibalistic Nigerians as gangsters. Certainly there are Nigerian gangsters at large in many parts of the world, but I suggest that the filmmaker needs to be more clear about how he expects audiences to read his satire/allegory.
So, the film risks being seen as racist at the same time as it satirises the post-apartheid treatment of refugees in the RSA. Another problem is associated with one of several plot holes/confusions. What do we actually learn about the social structure of the aliens? How does gender work in their social system and what kind of class system do they have? We do discover something about the ‘hatching’ of eggs, but did I miss something about ‘queens’ or other females? Are most of the aliens drones – with only a couple of high order males who can fly the spacecraft?
Overall, this is an interesting film that probably tries to do too much and possibly gets tangled up in political and social issues it isn’t quite sure how to handle. Nevertheless it is worth watching and studying. Although it is distributed by Sony, it’s clearly a global film with a South African director trained in Canada and a film shot in South Africa with effects and post-production work in New Zealand. (It’s produced by Peter Jackson, but I’m not sure how important his contribution was.)
Here’s the short film that Neill Blomkamp made in 2005 and which he then expanded to make as District 9: