Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature of an alien slum in the city of Johannesburg is an impressive action film, though lacking in substance and any real depth despite the rich sense of history and place it has to draw on.
The premise of District 9 is that during the early ’80s a giant spaceship coasted to a halt above Johannesburg and the alien occupants are eventually broken out and resettled in a slum district on Earth. When we join, the process of relocation has begun to move the aliens into a concentration camp away from the general population, though described to the aliens and press as an improvement. What we see echoes the events of the late ’60s and early ’70s in which non-white residents of a South African Cape Town district were forcibly evicted by the white government, and our face for this is the bumbling and naive Wikus Van De Merwe, employed by Multinational United (MNU), the organisation tasked with overseeing the alien district, wandering happily through the slum oblivious to the danger he is in as he forces alien residents to sign documents agreeing to the relocation.
I found the first half hour or so to be both fascinating and horrific as Wikus takes a documentary crew around the district delivering forced eviction notices. To begin with Wikus is endearingly useless, inoffensive and ineffectual, but as he treats the residents with a complete absence of humanity my sympathy for him wore thin, and after a particularly grotesque scene involving the casual torching of a slum dwelling containing in vitro alien young while the humans laugh outside and compare the sounds of burning pods to popping corn, I was firmly on the side of the non-humans.
After this opening, though, the film changes direction and drops any thoughtfulness in favour of wall to wall action, which, whilst impressively shot in a way that Michael Bay would do well to note for future Transformers films, does ask you to leave your brain at the door. When Wikus ends up on the run from the MNU and in league with one of the aliens he previously abused, the odd couple decide to storm the MNU headquarters, somehow making it from the district all the way to the main building without being spotted, and when Wikus suddenly acquires a full-blown, fully-armed, alien robotic suit he even knows exactly how to operate it.
Of the cast, only Wikus has any real depth of character to him, but even then he’s a selfish character, only helping the aliens in order to help himself. The aliens themselves are indistinguishable from one another in both personality and appearance and the two dimensional human villains, all corporate apparatchiks and hoo-ra military personnel, hark back to Lethal Weapon 2‘s villainous white saffers. The only other notable presence in the film is a gang of Nigerians: superstitious, voodoo-practicising, cannibalistic thugs who get their own subtitles despite clearly speaking English. In a film that seems to be, on the surface at least, about race and discrimination, it’s an odd treatment that has drawn justifiable complaints. I’d like to think that the film is just being ironic in some way but I don’t think it’s that smart.
District 9 doesn’t bring a lot that’s new to SF. The film borrows freely from previous works: the giant ship hovering ominously above the city from both the TV series V and the Emmerichs’ Independence Day of course, there are obvious shades of Cronenberg’s The Fly in there and also Alien Nation, Iron Man and various other bits and pieces. Fortunately it’s all packaged up within the South African slum setting and the handheld documentary film style which makes everything feel fresh (in a dirty, dusty sort of way).
Ultimately what could have been a thoughtful satire on South Africa’s apartheid history is overwhelmed by a lengthy bullets and bodies shootout. District 9 is gory and violent but if taken as the last of the summer blockbusters then the film is a success: brain-free and loud, Blomkamp is to James Cameron what Moon director Duncan Jones is to Ridley Scott. However, if you want something to give to your mind to chew on, you’d better look elsewhere.