Neil Blomkamp, “District 9” (2009)
The inspiration for this science fiction film arises from a context in which racial segregation and exploitation informed the basis for an entire society. In 1966, the South African government used a 1950 law to declare an area (District 6) in Cape Town a whites-only area and commenced clearing out the black communities there. Two years later, the forced removal of people began and by the 1980s, nearly 60,000 people had been turfed out. The intention behind the forced removal was to open up the area to developers (with the government perhaps benefiting financially as well). Thirty years later, with the Israeli government pursuing similar apartheid policies of removal against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and for similar reasons, little has changed and this is where “District 9” packs a strong punch.
The film opens its narrative some 28 years after an alien spacecraft has arrived in Johannesburg and deposited its load of sick and malnourished refugee aliens who resemble giant walking shrimp crustaceans there. The aliens are made to live in a slum area of the city and their conditions are portrayed as debased and grim. Under pressure from the public, all white, black and shades in-between, who fear and distrust the alien presence, the South African government decides to evict the aliens and force them to move elsewhere, and gives the job to a private security firm MNU. A rather ordinary administrator employee Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tasked by his sceptical father-in-law Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar), to oversee the relocation. While clearing out the aliens, Wikus enters one of the aliens’ homes and picks up a cylinder of alien liquid. He accidentally sprays the stuff into his face and from there the film traces Wikus’ transformation from human to alien.
When MNU discovers what is happening to Wikus, the company detains him under heavy security and begins investigating the effects of the transformation. Almost straight away, MNU scientists realise that Wikus’ changing DNA and blood enable him to fire weapons captured in the past from the aliens and Smit, on hearing the news, callously gives orders for the vivisection of Wikus. Wikus escapes and makes his way to District 9 where he enters the place where he picked up the cylinder and is reacquainted with the alien called Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son. When Johnson realises what is happening to Wikus, he and Wikus strike a bargain: if Wikus and he can return to MNU to retrieve the cylinder, whose juice is needed to power an underground jump-ship up to the mother-ship and kick-start it back into action after 28 long years, Johnson will try to find a cure to reverse Wikus’ transformation.
From then on, the action thriller story with its attendant violence spurs into action and takes viewers all the way to the end. Along the way, the film fleetingly touches on various contemporary issues: the practice of corporations under the pretence of scientific research exploiting humans and aliens for military purposes; the scapegoating of the aliens and the use of fear to impose police state measures on society as a whole; the outsourcing of government functions to private companies for profit and the negative consequences that arise as a result; and the examination of racism, xenophobia and greed. A powerful undercurrent in the film is the paradox of Wikus becoming more fully human in a moral sense as his physical humanity ebbs away: he becomes more compassionate and discovers reserves of bravery and heroism in defending and aiding Johnson and his son.
The use of actual interviews with Johannesburg residents (about Zimbabwean aliens) and fictional interviews with MNU employees gives the film an air of gritty reality as well as fleshing out details of the plot and its themes. Unfortunately however, these interviews and the layering they give to the film are quickly ushered into the background as the Hollywood-style action plot with its emphasis on stereotyped characters such as the psychotic mercenary Koobus Venter (David James) and Wikus’ long-suffering missus Tania (Vanessa Haywood). Too much of the film is given over to various gunfights, each more bloody and using more special FX than the last.
In the end, the film just about holds together thanks to Sharlto Copley’s acting. What a pity though, that Copley had to shoulder an otherwise rather sketchy film whose potential as sharp social commentary remains frustratingly dormant. The film’s conclusion appears open-ended and one senses that a sequel in which Johnson returns with the panacea to reverse Wikus’ transformation and Wikus confronts his callous father-in-law is needed.