District 9

Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 09/21/09 19:37:43

"To be alien-ated!"
3 stars (Average)

Perhaps it is fitting that it took a South Africa-born filmmaker to wake us up to the fact that aliens in our sci-fi films were always meant to symbolize, rather simply, ‘aliens’. It is quite humbling then, that the Neill Blomkamp directed District 9, a seemingly generic film about us-vs-aliens, pretty much summates all the previous sci-fi films about us-vs-aliens as popular texts on the subject of xenophobia. Except, and thankfully and importantly so, this Peter Jackson produced sci-fi action dramedy, doesn’t dumb down its message for the lowest common denominators. Not until the third act anyway.

And so they, aliens, arrive on Earth. Not as they’ve been doing in so many sci-fi films before. No, these aliens, unlike any aliens seen on celluloid before (and God knows they all owe themselves to Spielberg’s Pavlovian conditioning of our responses towards aliens), have no plans of either invading or befriending us Earthlings. Their station here happens to be merely by chance when their spaceship, on its intergalactic course, is stranded over the Earth skies as its module separates from the ship. When a human probe-squad makes its way inside the ship, they find thousands of Crustacean-like creatures dead, sickly or malnourished. Being humans, and displaying that quality which makes them so, the aliens are relocated from the ship to Earth and housed in a camped area called District 9. The masterstroke of course, and that which lends all of these proceedings immense sociopolitical gravitas, is that all of this takes place some 20 years ago. And not in some city of the United States (as most sci-fi films of Hollywood would like us to believe that the eventual close-encounter, if and when it shall ever happen, between ‘us’ and the aliens will literally be between US and the aliens!), but in Johannesburg, South Africa. This is what, at once, bestows the film with a subtext beyond its genre…bringing to mind the Apartheid and the Holocaust at once.

As it is in present day then, the number of these aliens in District 9 has risen to 1.8 million and the district itself, worse than a slum. In two decades, the feeling which led to bringing these aliens down to Earth and housing them has been substituted by anger, resentment, disgust and xenophobia. The tension between the humans and the aliens has risen exponentially, leading to a sort of public war on the streets. The humans who naturally feel repulsed by these creatures- their appearance, their scavenging like hyenas –also bemoan that such an amount of money and resources are being spent on these aliens when there is hardly enough to address their own needs. Conversely, the ghettoization of District 9 has allowed anti-social elements to thrive under an apathetic military rule, with a Nigerian gang led by its paralyzed warlord Obesandjo buying alien-weaponry in exchange for tinned cat-food (the only stuff that the aliens seem to eat on Earth). The catch is that these weapons can only be used by those with alien DNA.

Appropriately then, an arms contractor by the name of Multinational United (MNU), also assigned with the job of evicting the aliens out of District 9 to a concentration camp in District 10, wants to vivisect one of its employees when he is infected by a strange serum causing his appendage to gradually turn into an alien one and making him capable of firing alien-weaponry. This man, a bumbling nerd by the name of Wikus Van De Merwe, is the unusual and unconventional lead of our film. Played excellently by relative newcomer Sharlto Copley, Wikus begins as your typical office-going straightjacket, then reveals a despicably sheepish & mean pencil-pusher but finally transforms into something altogether unlikely (I won’t use the word hero, because he isn’t one), something/someone we sympathize with and root for. We also root for the father-son alien duo of Christopher and Chris Jr., trying desperately to get back to their mother-ship and head back home.

Blomkamp lays out his pieces neatly. Without shoving the allegory down your throat, he alludes to the problem of migration. In times that are increasingly challenging, both economically and climatically, migration is inevitable. It is thus an issue that needs to be addressed, and addressed with sensitivity. A temporary solution and lack of governmental planning leads to slums, crime and eventually, civil war. The only benefactors and exploiters are the capitalists. Blomkamp doesn’t play it subtly when the company that fights to eliminate both Wikus and the aliens is called ‘Multinational’!

Shot on a Red One camera, the employment of handheld and documentary-styled footage to exposit works not only in presenting the setup in a unique way but also brings a foreboding immediacy and verisimilitude to the proceedings. The narrative also resorts to offbeat wry humour, giving us one of the most curious films in terms of tone.

It is unfortunate then that the third act of this otherwise cerebral sci-fi film is reduced to a shootout (spectacular though it may be). Also, while the film does touch upon matters that previous sci-fi films didn’t bother themselves with, it lacks novelty and ingenuity when it comes to the action and SFX scenes. There were times when I was reminded of all films from The Fly to Independence Day to Transformers.

As its stands though, District 9 is a scary premonition of times to come. Relatable to almost every country, state and city in the world…the film causes you to think much more than what it actually says. When was the last time you were able to say that about a mainstream sci-fi flick?

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