Written by Eydie
District 9 is Schindler’s List meets Alien Nation. The Peter Jackson-produced film, by freshman director Neill Blomkamp, is only about aliens and big spaceships on the surface. In reality, it’s a bleak study at the way humans, acting in fear, treat those who are different from themselves–and, just like in real life, how those who were once victims of xenophobia easily become perpetrators.
The movie is shot in documentary fashion, with experts, historians, and witnesses giving interviews, a great technique to deal with exposition. It’s the story about Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the man responsible for “relocating” the so-called prawn aliens who look nothing like the critters from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or humanoids from Star Wars and Star Trek. Instead, they’re giant crustacean-insect hybrids with tastes and lifestyles very different from our own. Maybe the movie is saying something about how looks really do matter in society: Rather than become accepted members of society, as in other sci-fi films, these frightful-looking beings are treated in a way that continues humanity’s tradition of the Crusades; the Third Reich; and apartheid, both South African (note the Johannesburg location if you don’t get it) and American.
I spent the entire movie with furrowed brow, a tightened mouth, and decreasing faith in the human race. (I also kept thinking about the short story “Doorstep,” in which the military blasts the tar out of a gigantic alien when experts fail to translate a message from its people. After the creature is destroyed, the translators finally come through and share the heartbreaking note: “Please take good care of my little girl.”) Sure, the aliens’ nurseries, set up in decrepit shantytowns, look like scenes from a horror film what with the hanging cow carcasses dripping nutrients into infants. What’s more horrific, though, is Wikus pulling the quasi-umbilical cords from the larva-like young, cheerfully calling it “abortion,” and grinning while those following his orders use flamethrowers on the babies.
Of course, you know this guy’s gonna get what’s coming to him. In this case, it’s a virus, a by-product of special fuel developed by alien Christopher Johnson (aww, he tried to assimilate) and his little son, who hope to power a ship and escape back to their home world. When he starts turning into a prawn himself, Wikus–or rather, his body parts–becomes deeply coveted by the weapons conglomerate MNU and Nigerian warlords alike. The former yes-man bureaucrat soon learns to walk in the aliens’ exoskeletons, developing their strange food cravings and learning what it’s like to be treated with cruelty and disdain.
Not surprisingly, the special effects are spectacular, with the prawns seeming as real as any human (or at least, as real as Golum in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films). So are the scenes of action, even if they’re more gory than I prefer and, disappointingly, become the focus during the film’s climax. But the FX aren’t the star of the movie, the way they are in Transformers or Terminator. Instead, they serve to challenge the viewer: Are you capable of feeling sympathy for physically unattractive, yet empathic, beings?