Movie Review: Neill Blomkamp's District 9 (2009)

Click here to see a trailer.

Peter Jackson's new protege, Neill Blomkamp, has created a film that takes the science fiction genre to a higher plain. On the surface, you think you are getting a typical science fiction evil alien story. That is certainly what my expectations were after watching the trailer, which is mighty misleading. But the story here is about the essence of humanity and what humans are capable of when they forget what the word "humane" means. It is sure to provoke a strong response in whomever watches it.

The film goes back and forth between a mockumentary format and a regular narrative film. Our setting is modern day Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty-eight years ago, a large spacecraft came and hovered above the city. When the local authorities finally get up the courage to break into the ship, they find a horde of aliens that are half-starved. They move the aliens to a "safe location" for them, which is really an internment, called District 9. The local government feels this is necessary to protect its human citizens, since the aliens began to exhibit violent tendencies.

Now in our current setting, the population of Johannesburg is unhappy with the alien presence. They want them gone. So the government decides to relocate the aliens to a new location through forced migration. We can see District 9 has become a slum, and we understand why the humans want them removed. They plunder the land, fighting over tires and trash. They own weapons that humans can't operate, and they eat cat food. But we can see why the aliens might live this way. First of all, if you are starving, you will eat anything, and if the only option is cat food, well, you eat cat food. Also, when you force a bunch of people into a tight spot, they are going to fight for ownership over the little land they have. The aliens act as any oppressed people group throughout history has. They begin to act like animals.

The way the humans decide to do this migration is silly indeed, and they are just asking for trouble. Unfortunately, most of the trouble lands on the heads of the aliens. The task force given the job is headed by Wikus Van De Merwe. Van De Merwe is a typical bureaucrat. He has his clipboard; he has his rules; and he'll write your name on the board if you get out of line. Hovering above at all times is the military in their helicopters, and if any aliens get out of line, they have no problem just shooting them on sight. The task force feels they are required to give the aliens 24 hours notice. They are supposed to get each alien to sign the clipboard, and if they won't, they threaten their kids or give them cat food--whatever it takes to get them to sign.

The crisis point that begins our story is when Van De Merwe finds a device that is hidden in the home of an alien that must be their resident scientist. He innocently plays with the device not realizing it has a potent fluid inside that, if not impeded, will turn Van De Merwe into an alien, or prawn. Van De Merwe accidentally sprays himself with the liquid, and he slowly begins to turn into a prawn. Van De Merwe now finds himself the hunted, where he was the hunter. The ones he oppressed are now the only ones that will take him in. The scientist prawn, who is named Christopher Johnson, tells Wilkus he can fix him and get back to his planet, if they can get the device back. But there are many forces blocking their path, and everyone will show their true colors by the end of the movie. This is not a hero's tale, but it's realistic and involving.

The story moves at a good pace. At no point does the action drag or waste time on meaningless or confusing plotlines. In addition, the director makes wise choices in how much violence to show. Since most of the violence in this film is done to aliens, there is that protective mask you can hide behind since the victim isn't a human, but these aliens do evoke feeling from us. Sure, they look like Jabba the Hut's ugly cousin, but they wear clothes, they talk, and they have kids. They cry for their friends, and they do feel pain, even if the most of the humans in this movie seem to forget that.

The actors all do a great job, although only a few humans actually have more than a minor speaking role. You won't recognize any of the faces here.

On a deeper level, we understand that we aren't really talking about aliens here. If you take away the spaceship and the alien bodies, any racial group that has faced oppression could be substituted for the aliens, and we would have the same story. The aliens have a few advantages: they are from another planet, so they have the option of escaping in a ship, and they have some technology that humans don't. Unfortunately, in the real stories where humans have been placed in internment camps and forced to leave their homes, there was no escape plan. The fact that this film is set in Johannesburg adds a deeper level, since many of its racial groups suffered similar fates as the alien prawns under the apartheid era.

I enjoyed the movie. It was intense, and difficult to watch sometimes, but it does what I want my movies to do: grab me with inventive, exciting storytelling, and evoke strong emotions.