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District 9 – A Review (for humans)

April 17, 2011

District 9, released for (human) UK audiences in September 2009, tells the story of Wikus van der Merwe, a South-African “MNU” employee tasked with the responsibility for evicting an alien population, who became stranded on Earth 28 years ago in 1982, from the refugee camp turned militarised ghetto in Johannesburg and relocating them further away from the city, where they cannot pose a threat to the human inhabitants. In the course of the eviction process, Wikus finds himself exposed to a strange alien chemical he finds in the home of one of the so-called “prawns” he is relocating, the consequences of which force him to reconsider his alliance with the humans and rely on the aliens to help him.

Set up very much in the same vein as I Am Legend and Cloverfield, the clips of news reports, documentaries and home footage of the spaceship that form the opening sequence of District 9 are where the most distinct of the similarities with its “contemporaries” in the sci-fi movie world end. For it cannot be argued, that there does seem that currently (or in the recent past at least), there is a bit of a trend for using such devices to add to the impression of authenticity and realism a film leaves upon its audience. District 9, though, goes beyond the simplicity of media coverage and the gimmickiness of home footage to establish the premise for this film as plausible, weaving the narrative basis for the film so elaborately and thoroughly that it includes “prawns”, derogatory slang with which to refer to the alien population.

However it is not the thorough construction of District 9 that really sold this film for me. Shot entirely on location in South Africa, directed by Neill Blomkamp (born in Johannesburg) and starring Sharlto Copley and David James (both South African), District 9, in its African-ness, offers something a little different from the generic Hollywood response to a hypothetical alien invasion that has proven to be a welcome and refreshing change of pace compared to films like Cloverfield and the recent Battle Los Angeles that infinitely adds to its viability as an answer to the way humankind would respond to an unannounced intergalactic visit. Under Blomkamp’s direction, District 9 incorporates real aspects of contemporary African culture to reinforce the plausibilty of the narrative, and, perhaps controversially, I found it hard to ignore the sense of allegory in the film. Historically, it has not gone unnoticed that in some moments of crisis in Africa, displaced refugees from conflict zones elsewhere on the continent have been “temporarily” contained within make-shift camps that quickly degenerate into gang-controlled, militarised ghetto slums where the inhabitants become exploited and abused by those with whom they sought asylum. By displacing the role of the refugee onto a non-human entity, the film is able to make an open, albeit subtle, comment on this situation, exposing the brutality of the way such matters are handled and persuading the audience of the evils of humanity when, unexpectedly, they find themselves sympathising whole-heartedly with the alien “prawn” population.

District 9 was interesting more than enjoyable to watch. The plot is simple to follow – I even dozed off for a small portion of the middle without losing track of what was going on – and has the beauty of demanding only as much or as little thought and analysis as the viewer is prepared to bestow. Not for the squeamish, but not a gore-fest either, there stands no good reason why District 9 should not enjoy universal appeal and, comes, from me at least, highly recommended.

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