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District 9 Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 23, 2009

    District 9 Review

    “Don't you point your foo-kin' tentacles at me!”

    Having the line “Peter Jackson Presents” before your title can't be a bad thing at all, but the power and brilliance of Neill Blomkamp's violent SF allegory, District 9, lies not so much with such an illustrious liaison as that with the Kiwi wunderind as it does with a fiercely singular vision, a highly original take on some potentially scathing material and a wicked delight in fusing genre conventions with left-field sensibilities. Literally entering bold new ground - South Africa is hardly renowned for it fantasy-leanings - this inspired mingling of social commentary, jaw-dropping alien invention, uber-nastiness and raw, cathartic action is a true ground-breaker from start to sequel-hailing finish. Exciting and intelligent, but with its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek so as to enable him to sneak more political accusation under the radar, Blomkamp (who co-wrote the screenplay with Terri Tatchell) creates one of the best, most assured and most consistently satisfying feature-film debuts since Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead.

    When the big screen adaptation of Halo finally collapsed under its own production weight, Jackson saw fit to ally himself with that project's ambitious helmer and help get District 9 off the ground. Having shown his credentials with the acute 2006 short Alive In Joburg, which told of the plight of real illegal aliens in the notoriously intolerant city, Blomkamp's alien discourse on the trials and tribulations of this dangerous and peculiarly skewed hotbed of unrest and social agitation seems almost like a logical extension. It you want to bring such grievances to wider attention than a documentary can ever reach, then SF/fantasy is very definitely the way to go. Taking up the baton from genre concepts set forth by the likes of The Quatermass Xperiment and The Fly (human gradually metamorphosing into something decidedly inhuman), Alien Nation (mankind and extraterrestrials living side by side with considerable reluctance) and, as becomes massively clear with Blomkamp's aggressive satire, mock reality grit and media-use, techno-violence and distrust of authority, Paul Verhoeven's classic Robocop, District 9 hits the ground running, hurls ideas at you with utterly fearless abandon throughout and simply does not pause to take prisoners along the way. At times it feels like guerilla film-making, but this is all part of Blomkamp's highly individual style - blending media-coverage with adrenaline-accelerating dramatics and whirling on-a-dime. It defies you not to keep up with it.

    “I mean, you can't say they don't look like that, that's what they look like, right? They look like prawns.”

    The plot is simple and symbolic. In 1982, a vast alien mothership comes to Earth and then stalls above Johannesburg (“Not Manhattan. Not Washington. Not Chicago.”), locking itself into a geo-stationary orbit. The inhabitants, a race of tall, bug-headed “workers”, are eventually freed from what has become a veritable prison and relocated to what, years later, has become nothing more than another prison - a segregated ghetto on the outskirts of the city called District 9. Fenced-in, subjugated and barely tolerated by the population-at-large, the “Prawns” as they are referred to, have virtually devolved into sleazy slum-dwellers, desperate for food and hand-outs, and easy-pickings for the organised crime-lords who seek to exploit them. Taking up residency within the clapped-out, corrugated shanty-town are supremely vicious Nigerian gangs who, unmolested by the law enforcement agencies, conduct their own despicable witchdoctery with the poor aliens who fall into their vile clutches. But the biggest enemy of all is the staunchly right-wing authorities who hemmed them in and now want to move them on to another even less comfortable camp further away from the city that once welcomed them, the insidious and hard-line corporate demons who lurk under the banner of the MNU (Multi-National United), a sinister organisation who, it is revealed are the second largest weapons manufacturer in the world. With alien weaponry of devastating firepower having also been retrieved from the stricken ship, that still hovers impotently above the sprawling city, the MNU boffins down in their secret labs are engaged in the study of simply getting them to work - but only in conjunction with alien DNA will they operate. Vile experiments on captured Prawns have, so far, yielded nothing but failure. And, in their own way, the cruel Nigerians, who have an extensive cache of alien equipment, are conducting a more primitive, though no less sadistic form of experimentation to find the essence of that secret power.

    Into this warped and dangerous world comes likeably inept MNU agent Wikus Van Der Merwe (played marvellously by Sharlto Copley) who has recently been promoted by his father-in-law, who just happens to be one of the conglomerate's head honchos, to the chief position of field officer in charge of serving evictions to the alien population of District 9 and moving them on to what he knows will be ultimately little more than a concentration camp. Under armed escort and in a very Black Hawk Down style heavy-handed and gung-ho operation - an armoured convoy with helicopter gunship support - he and his team of bureaucrats enter the cesspit of the alien ghetto and begin to serve notices to the confused, frightened and occasionally aggressive residents. With a TV crew filming the task, Wikus tries to remain jovial and flippant, at once pretending to be polite for the cameras whilst still being unable not to mock the Prawns at the same time and even taking great delight in pointing out the little “popping” sound made by a batch of illegal alien eggs when one of his men turns a flamethrower on them - “It's like popcorn!” he laughs. But when he accidentally gets sprayed in the face by the strange fluid in a confiscated cannister, Wikus' life is about to turn very grim indeed. After a bout of black vomit, a wounded arm sustained in a violent encounter in the shanty begins to take on some exceptionally Prawn-like tendencies and suddenly the very people he works for become horribly interested in what appears to be his altering DNA. Escaping from the MNU compound and seeking refuge in the one place that won't openly shun him, Wikus finds that he will have to overcome his prejudices and work with a Prawn that he would have initially thought-of as being a terrorist if he is to stand a chance of regaining his humanity.

    Hunted by the knuckle-headed barbarian mercenaries that MNU hires to do its dirty work - most notably Jason Isaacs-lookalike David James (no, not that one - he doesn't look like Jason Isaacs, does he?) as the brutal soldier Koobus Venter - Wikus forms an unlikely alliance with the Prawn, called Christopher Johnson, and his technically savvy son who, it transpires, have a cunning plan for their kind and were, in a neat irony that links them unavoidably to their hastily hybridising guest, partially responsible for the disgusting condition that is transforming Wikus' flesh in the first place. With the gun-toting, machete-waving Nigerians wanting his arm for their own revolting purposes, the MNU sending shock troops after him, a strange craving for cat food (the aliens all love the stuff) and a wife that thinks he's been indulging in sexual antics with Prawns, Wikus has to dig deep and, in the process, locate a weary compassion for the only beings on the planet who understand him.

    “I would never have any kind of ... pornographic activity with a foo-kin' creature!”

    No-one could mistake the ferocious allegorical stance that the story takes with regards to Apartheid and the bigoted intolerance that prevails in South Africa, but the genius behind this accusation is found in its black comedy, its wildly speculative technological notions, its gleeful sense of role-reversal and, most beguilingly of all, its ability to rummage through the often very darkly satirical material and unearth a genuinely emotional core that is wholly believable, totally in-character and actually hugely inspirational come the devastating climax. Yet the film is never preachy, nor patronising. Its message does not interfere with a fast-paced and dynamic narrative that crackles with verbal wit and pulse-pounding mayhem. But, a word of warning, once the alien weaponry comes into play, you'd better stand back and put on goggles and some protective overalls, for when District 9 gets bombastic it gets messy, folks. Very messy. With propulsive blasts that can evaporate a human body and send its gooey bits to all four corners of the screen in a livid welter, angry Prawns that can a tear a man limb-from-limb in seconds and some hideous, Seth Brundle-style bodily corruption from an anguished Wikus, the spiritual camaraderie between Blomkamp and his bear-like overseer Jackson is readily apparent. Although much more accomplished than the blood-letting seen in either Bad Taste or Brain Dead, District 9 has that same delicious, no punches pulled approach to the cinematic depiction of carnage that the pre-LOTR Jackson had in spades.

    And FX-gods Weta come up trumps, yet again.

    The image of the massive mothership hanging poised above Joburg, little helicopters perpetually buzzing around it like flies, is both awe-inspiring and grungy. This is most defiantly not Close Encounters, Spielberg's magical light show swapped for rust, dust and a smog-filled grimy carbuncle perched beneath the clouds. The aliens, themselves, are a truly fantastic creation. Utterly photo-realistic and three-dimensional, their interactivity, depth and sheer presence on-screen was unmatched until James Cameron's blue-skinned Naa'vi loped, bound and pirouetted across the lush beauty of Avatar's Pandora - but then he had many more years of pioneering techno-building to aid his superlative vision. The Prawns, though, are a different breed in more ways than one. Clearly inspired by insects and click-clicking with a rapid and strained guttural timbre, their discomfort with the environment that has ensnared them is passionately portrayed. Foraging in the slag-heaps and rubbish mounds for food and, in the case of Christopher Johnson and his son, bits of cast-off technology that they can salvage, they paint a wretched picture of the dislodged, the disenfranchised and the despised. Genuine fear and anger can be seen in their yellow eyes, all manner of thrown-together gypsy accoutrements adorn their long-limbed, beetle-like bodies such as baseballs caps, badges, bandannas and even a bra and gaffer-tape. It is also a great move that has Blomkamp withholding from having them speaking English, or Transvaal, or whatever. Spitting and clacking their mandibles in their native tongue, conveniently subtitled for us adds a little texture to their evocation. It is just the fact that we see only select groups of them, or merely individuals, that makes the lack of budget apparent, especially as we are informed that the camp holds over a million of them.

    “How many moons does our planet have?”


    Watch out for the alien warp-gun that bounces a sonic wave at its target and then blitzes them across overturned vehicles and through walls, a great bubble of image-bending shock providing weight to the impact. But, in honour, perhaps, to Jim Cameron's power-lifters from Aliens (now super-enhanced in Avatar into war-machines) and Verhoeven's terrifying ED-209 mecha-massacre-on-legs from Robocop, Blomkamp gives us a massively satisfying battle-suit with which to wreak maximum havoc, turning the last-act into a pulverising spectacle of all-out destruction. Early images of Prawns leaping over APC's and loping off across the tops of shacks also astound. But the smart play here is that Blomkamp does not rely on such visual excess. Arguably, he couldn't afford to, but the impression is that he wouldn't have done so even he had access to Cameron-scale finances. Blomkamp is depicting a world that is used to these aliens and that metal eclipse floating in the sky. If the humans in the film are blasé about them, then the film has to follow suit, maintaining that edgy fly-on-the-wall approach.

    The cast are excellent to a one. The vox-pops interviewees delivering a sage running critique of these historic events in complete earnest adds a strangely very convincing flavour. Vanessa Haywood, as Wikus' wife, isn't on-screen for much of the time, but she certainly leaves a tragic impression of incomprehensible fear and loss as her husband's plight becomes increasingly more public and volatile. Genuine boo-hiss evil comes in the unsympathetic and intimidating forms of James' blood-hungry Koobus and Louis Minnaar's dirty, scheming and manipulative trickster Piet Smit who, together, provide something of an adult panto-like flair for screen-dripping scumbaggery. Some have hailed their turns as wooden and one-note, but in a power-play as vicious as this, such wanton villainy is precisely what is called for and I would say that James, especially, is highly convincing as a bullet-kissing mercenary. I love the way that, near the start, before they all move off into the camp, he gives a couple of little self-conscious glances towards the documentary camera, as though weighing-up just what he can get away with in front of it, before then losing it and turning on Wikus with arrogant fury. I'd like to say that Jason Cope, who donned the micro-dotted grey suit to portray Christopher Johnson, as well as a variety of other Prawns, was also a supremo, but this would be something of a misnomer. He must share that accolade with the team that created his insectoid alter-ego, as well as the rest of his shunned species of desperate scavengers, who are, without doubt, amongst the best to have ever wielded pixels and mo-cap technology. For, despite the Prawn's utterly inhuman countenance, we see his emotions, his sadness and his rage, his practical determination, his despair and, above all else, his exquisite nobility written believably within his soulful eyes and clicking mandibles. Cope, however, does get to play a couple of humans as well, so you can't say that he didn't earn his cat food, can you?

    But the film, unarguably, belongs to Copley as it is his riveting performance that anchors all these crazy scenarios together. Whether fabulously ad-libbing during the authentically chaotic shakey-cam documentary footage, pleading with the demoniacally uncaring scientists who are goading him with electric shocks into committing experimental executions with ET hardware, disintegrating into shock and trauma at the colossal dilemma he finds himself trapped in, or vengefully “doing the right thing” and taking the fight to the enemy with alien-enhanced bravado, Copley is one-hundred percent credible. Only Richard Wordsworth as Hammer's alien plant-man in Quatermass and Jeff Goldblum in Cronenberg's remake of The Fly have brought as much sympathetic dread and revulsion to the screen. Something that can't help but sound odd to many ears is the South African accent, but I have to admit that, working as I do with quite a devoted bunch of film-fans, there have been a lot of impersonations of Wikus' more amusing lines flitting about the office and, as bizarre it may seem, his inflections, whether casting crazed and searing indictments of sanctioned barbarism (“I can shoot a pig, but I can't kill a Prawn! He's done nothing to me!”), expounding the lack of rights for aliens (“You'll get a fine for this!”) or just begging for his wife, Tanya, not to hang up the phone and trying to assure her that he can still make things right again, Copley has such a vapid, nervous demeanour that you can't help but find him endearing.

    “You see this? He's stealing computers and decorating his premises with them. He definitely doesn't have a permit for this!”

    Blomkamp's style is exuberant and gutsy. Weaned on news footage and documentaries, he keeps things active and on-the-hoof, with a nice line in hand-held, taut snap-edit kinetics. His set-pieces are pummelling - the one-man, one-alien assault on the heavily guarded MNU complex is a bruising joy, and the entire last stand action is a gallant mix of sci-fi heroism and startlingly juicy just-desserts. Mixing aerial views and distance-shots - two pivotal dismemberments occur almost fleetingly observed - he keeps us on our toes. Even the more intimate moments - Wikus arriving home to a surprise party that he is in no shape to deal with, or imploring against the dark designs of someone he once foolishly trusted whilst surgeons are about to cut into him - are dealt with in a stark, semi-reality fashion, further blurring our perceptions of a narrative that pushes and pulls us in different directions all the time. Having grown up in South Africa during the era of Apartheid, his knowledge of the culture clashes and the violent distrust of the region are beyond reproach and even if he likes to say that the film is not at all political, it is difficult not to see some personal stamp of authenticity on it. The violence is sharp and brutal, but it is also depicted in a casual and non-sensationalist way - which is astounding when you consider that bodies are frequently exploding and redecorating the landscape - and this, again, is the darkly matter-of-fact way of life and death in such lawless enclaves that Blomkamp knows.

    In line with this, Clinton Shorter's sombre and atmospheric score combines with Trent Opaloch's moody cinematography, that utilises the achingly sharp Red One cameras for the non-mock-doc material, the two together capturing the heat and the sweat and the dust of Johannesburg and the sense of lingering oppression that is all-pervading. A gleaming, desaturated palette burns up the screen, Blomkamp fuelling the unusual environment with a war-torn vibrancy that, at times, evokes Ridley Scott's Mogadishu and images of Iraq and Afghanistan, further adding to the seething potency of the story and its blurring of good guys and bad guys in a place so twisted that conventional morality seems to have fallen completely by the wayside. Allegorical and conscience-pricking it may, but District 9 is also incredibly amusing in a way that few other films manage to be. And it is testament to their intuitive writing and the trust that they have in their cast that Blomkamp and Tatchell are able to create such a stunningly individual vision that wows and troubles, haunts and excites so seemingly effortlessly.

    This has been an incredibly busy year for visual and thematic SF. Besides the typically big budget, hotly anticipated likes of Star Trek (terrific), Transformers 2 (appalling) and Terminator Salvation (terrible, but, for some unfathomable reason, beginning to grow on me), we had the glorious and highly resonant Moon, the inspired low-key Spanish head-scratcher of Time Crimes, the dark majesty of Watchmen, and now the pure sensory orgasm of Avatar (which I have seen three times now and must admit that I think I have become addicted to its full-on depiction of the alien world of Pandora), but Blomkamp's District 9 is the film that actually has its cake (or cat food) and devours it. Just as Paul Verhoeven did with Robocop so many years before (God, has it really been that long?), District 9 packs a wallop in both the eye-candy and the emotional departments and seems to have pleased more of the audience more of the time than all of the year's other offerings, Star Trek aside, put together. As Wikus, Sharlto Copley is simply magnificent. It is hard to imagine any other well-known actor out there managing to marshal the character's initially clownish antics with the heartbreaking developments that will ensue, as well as carving out a niche for one of the most unlikely action heroes to have ever donned an exo-skeleton power-suit and taken on an army. If Neill Blomkamp is the visionary champion of the project, then Copley is its renaissance poster-boy.

    Truly unique and tremendously entertaining, District 9 seems to have been cultivated in the dark corner of indie-cult - yet its influence and acclaim are more far-reaching and accessible than that. Possibly the best film of the year.