It’s not difficult to see the subtext in District 9. In fact, it’s so blatant that it’s barely even a subtext at all. The story was inspired by writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s childhood growing up in the South African apartheid, and those influences are worn unapologetically on the film’s sleeve.
A huge spaceship hangs over Johannesburg, South Africa. We don’t really know why it’s there or where it’s come from. Its inhabitants, derogatorily nicknamed ‘prawns’ due to their appearance and perception as bottom-feeders, were found malnourished on the ship and subsequently housed by the government in a large township called District 9. Now living in squalor, the aliens have outstayed their welcome and are to be evicted by munitions company Multi-National United. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is in charge of the evictions, but during the process is infected with a strange, black alien chemical. After the horrific effects of the chemical become apparent, he must team up with the prawns to survive.
The themes of social segregation, alienation and xenophobia smack you in the face from the very beginning, and it would be very easy to simply replace the aliens with black South Africans being exploited by the white men in suits. You don’t have to dig too deep to view the real life comparisons the film makes, but it’s handled well and doesn’t feel like a story that’s been told a thousand times before.
Seeing the aliens treated as they are is shocking, and the filmmakers have done a good job of giving the aliens a human element to elicit a more sympathetic reaction – although you could argue it speaks volumes that a human element is needed in order for us to feel that sympathy. It is even more shocking that real-life events are not too dissimilar (minus the alien technology, obviously) to those depicted on screen.
The film’s strength lies in it’s first half, where we discover how the aliens are living and how they are treated; being guinea pigs for weapon testing, controlled by their addiction to cat food, assaulted and abused at every opportunity. It’s a depressingly believable situation but one that is absorbing and intriguing. The aliens have different personalities and skills (some are computer experts, for example), whilst there are whole families looking out for each other and simply struggling to survive.
However, the second half of the film loses direction slightly and veers off into more typical action film territory rather than the social commentary the first half establishes. That’s not to say the film goes dramatically down hill, it just seems to lose focus a little. Despite that, it’s engaging from start to finish, is well paced and feels genuinely original.
Throughout District 9, primary characters are kept to a minimum. We see plenty of Wikus and his alien companion Christopher, but other than that there are few characters who feature heavily. Often, this would lead a film to become a little two-dimensional, but limiting the number of primary characters works in District 9’s favour; we are afforded more time with the protagonists to see how their relationship develops, whilst the secondary characters, including Wikus’s wife and work colleagues, complement the main story nicely.
Wikus himself is an interesting character, and it’s intriguing to see how he develops as the story progresses. Initially a slightly hapless but nonetheless loyal white collar worker, he has the same resentment for the prawns as everyone else, but as he is forced to work alongside the aliens, he shares their plight and becomes one of them, in more ways than one.
District 9 is the kind of film that stays with you for quite a while after you’ve watched it. It effortlessly blends sci-fi and an examination of real-world issues that, although based on the past, are still relevant. Whilst it does lose its way slightly, Blomkamp has created a film that doesn’t sit in any particular genre, but instead carves its own niche and stands tall within it.
Words: Chris Thomson