On The Aisle
By Tony Macklin
“District 9” is a ferocious fable. Potent and provocative, it is an allegory for our time. It is bursting with contemporary themes — oppression, greed, power, propaganda and the conflict of disparate cultures.
“District 9” is set in South Africa, where a massive spaceship has hovered in stasis above Johannesburg for 20 years. Aliens, from the mothership, have settled in an area in South Africa that over time has become a slum sprawling trash dumps. It is “District 9.”
The aliens are strange species. They demeaningly have been labeled “prawns,” because they are crustacean-like creatures.
The government decides to uproot and evict these aliens and send them to a relocation camp. There are almost 2 million prawn refugees.
Because of the influence of his powerful father-in-law, the son-in-law Wilkus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a middlebrow bureaucrat, is appointed by Multi-National United to oversee the mass relocation. MNU is a powerful corporation with a brutal military arm.
Wilkus is personable, mundane, and tries to do the best he can. But he’s a pawn trying to herd the prawns. A film crew is following him around documenting the process. Wilkus is as photogenic as “Brownie.” It becomes a “reality show.”
Ironically Wilkus becomes a one-armed fugitive. (The screenplay by director Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell is quite clever.)
Wilkus’ obedience to regulations is changed as he experiences how an outcast is treated. He begins to relate with one of the prawns, who is making plans to escape his confinement.
That prawn, given the human name Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) by the government, has a small spawn who, like ET, wants to go home. Wilkus relates to him and calls him “the boy.”
Wilkus and Christopher have to fight Nigerian thugs and relentless MNU gunmen to exist. All the while the media, like the TVs in “Fahrenheit 451,” is showing misleading and false images. Talking heads prevail. A picture is worth a thousand lies.
The prawns can represent any oppressed group, but director Blomkamp was born and raised in South Africa, so apartheid is an obvious allusion.
In 1966 the apartheid government invaded District 6 in Cape Town and removed its occupants and made it a whites-only area. Eventually 60,000 were relocated, their houses were bulldozed as slum clearance and the area was left untouched for more than 30 years.
Blomkamp, at the age of 18, left South Africa and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he went to film school. The 29-year old is now a protege of film potentate Peter Jackson, and that relationship obviously has served him very well.
In making “District 9,” Blomkamp was fortunate in employing novice actor Sharlto Copley. Copley is able to capture humor and the manic humanity of his character as multiple outrages close in. “District 9” is one pivot away from being Mr. Bean and the Aliens.
“District 9” has touches of absurdity. The prawns love cat food, and go giddy and violent over it.
The arsenal of prawn weapons is useless for humans; it needs prawn DNA to activate it. Blomkamp falls in love with zapping. It’s worthy of “Starship Troopers.” Targets get splashed, ripped and obliterated. Blomkamp’s trigger finger is definitely itchy.
But beneath the glorious gore beats a pulse of social concern. “District 9” is a heady dose of cinematic catnip. With a lasting, serious aftertaste.