Once in a while, something happens which gives you hope for the film industry. District 9 is one such something. It was originally supposed to be an adaptation of the Halo videogame series, but when that idea fortunately fell apart, it was reconstituted as a feature length take on director Neill Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg. The result was a relatively low budget, independently spirited film which nonetheless ranks with the best sci-fi action films of recent years.
In 1982, a huge alien spaceship appeared in the skies above South Africa. Seemingly derelict, it has hovered there ever since, and teams sent in to investigate it found the aliens within it starving and living in squalor. The aliens, who quickly become nicknamed Prawns because of their appearance, are relocated to a camp outside Johannesburg called District 9, which quickly becomes a slum. It doesn’t take long, however, for unrest to break out between the Prawns and the South Africans, and eventually, the government hires Multinational United to relocate the aliens to a new internment camp, District 10. One of their employees, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is chosen to lead the eviction.
Neill Blomkamp, in his debut feature, often seems to be overlooked in the making of District 9, largely because it was produced by Peter Jackson of The Lord of the Rings fame. While Jackson undoubtedly brings a lot to the table, not least in the fact that it was because of him that Weta Workshop handled the special effects for District 9 (and they’re as good as we’ve come to expect from Weta), it is very much Blomkamp’s film. It could probably only have been made by a South African, and it’s an appealing change from the norm that the aliens arrive in Johannesburg instead of New York for once.
Blomkamp uses the setting as a jumping off point to explore ongoing issues of racism in South Africa, with District 9 the name of the film being an obvious reference to the infamous District Six of the old apartheid government, from which over 60,000 non-white inhabitants were forcibly removed in the 1970s. It may be about as subtle as an anvil on the head, but the points the film makes are important ones, and it’s nice to see science fiction which is actually about something, as opposed to the empty spectacle which makes up the current majority of the genre.
Which is not to say that the film lacks spectacle, by any means. It’s mostly reserved for the third act for maximum impact, but when District 9 deploys its arsenal of alien weaponry which kills people in horribly creative ways, as well as a suit of powered armour which would make Tony Stark weep with envy, it’s truly a sight to behold. Still, action sequences are vastly improved by having characters the audience cares about involved in them, and it is here that District 9 shines. Sharlto Copley is the film’s secret weapon, giving a star-making performance as Wikus, who begins the film as an obnoxious bureaucrat who only cares about evicting the aliens, but transforms over the course of the film into a genuinely sympathetic character who you can’t help but root for in the end.
District 9 is what the best science fiction should be. It has a terrific central performance, action sequences and special effects to rival Hollywood blockbusters, as well as the brains and social conscience to be about something other than spectacle.