Tuesday, 8 November 2011

District 9 (2009)

Since it is set in a version of South Africa which appears to be contemporary (based on the vehicles and weaponry, along with details like the laptops and other electronic devices), it is pretty inevitable that it has been compared to both Apartheid and contemporary post-Apartheid descrimination against immigrants (Huddlestone, 2009).  Interestingly however, the South Africa of the film does not appear to have undergone Apartheid; at the very least, no mention of it is made at any point, even though the nominal arrival date of the aliens (28 years ago) would have been less than a decade before the ending of Apartheid in real South Africa.

The first act of the film takes the form of a mock documentary, following the authorities attempts to evict the aliens from the slum town of district 9 to a purpose-built camp away from the city (dubbed district 10).  This introduces the audience to the "world" of the film and its key elements: the aliens, derogatorily reffered to as "Prawns", and the human attitude towards them; Multi-National United, the vaguely sinister trans-national company that seems to have taken over the role of dealing with the aliens, starting with the boarding of the alien vessel; and District 9, the lawless, crime-ridden slum where the aliens are forced to live after a xenophobic backlash against their arrival (as shown in an opening montage of faux-news footage).

The main character of the film, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is initialy a casually xenophobic middle-manager at MNU, put in charge of issuing eviction notices to the aliens in District 9, so that MNU can then "legally" forcibly evict them (as the Telegraph review notes, this is an interesting contrast to the way real slum dwellers are treated - normally they are forcibly removed without prior warning).

Filmclip 1:  Wikus serves Christopher Johnson with Eviction Notice

During the course of the eviction, we are treated to the sight of MNU forces casually burning a nest of young aliens, complete with gleeful commentary from Wikus on the sound of the eggs "popping like popcorn", as well as the only major black characters in the film, the vicious and amoral "Nigerian Gangs" who act as a stand in for all the worst stereotypes of black africans - they exploit the aliens addiction to catfood to con them out of technology, think nothing of killing the aliens, and in a final ignomony, they eat the corpses of the aliens in a form of witchcraft/black magic based upon news reports of "Muti Murders", the supposed real-life killing of albinos for use in traditional medicine.

The second act of the film follows Wikus being transformed by exposure to a mysterious alien "fluid" that is apparently essential to the running of the alien spacecraft.  The transformation is body horror that could be straight from a David Cronenburg film, including Wikus pulling out his fingernails and losing teeth (an obvious reference to Cronenburg's The Fly); following an extremely unpleasant run-in with MNU forces (keen to disect him alive to further their own attempts to develope genetic-modification technology) he is forced to go on the run and ends up hiding in District 9 among the very aliens he had previously treated with contempt.

The third act is the most conventional, with several set-piece action scenes.  In an attempt to regain his human form, Wikus is forced to join forces with an alien (known as Christopher Johnson) who is attempting to restart the spaceship and rescue the aliens.  As the only alien (apart from its young child) the audience is supposed to identify with, Christopher has a greater range of facial expression than the standard aliens, and also demonstrates certain recognisably human manerisms (mainly when talking to his child).  Christopher is also responsible (in a roundabout way) for Wikus's transformation; he had been collecting the mysterious "fluid" that induced the metamorphosis in order to power up the command module of the alien spacecraft.

The film sets fall into 4 main types:  Wikus's home and office, both fairly conventional areas, looking like normal rooms, reflecting Wikus's role as an everyman; District 9, a Shanty Town full of rubbish and detritus, with buildings cobbled together from scrap materials, reflecting the shabby, unloved aliens that inhabit it; The MNU's labs and military vehicles, which are highly utilitarian, with no human touches, reflecting the harsh, unfeeling characters of the MNU mercenaries and scientists; and Christopher Johnson's shack and the shuttle craft underneath, which is festooned with computer parts cobbled together by a maze of wiring.

As an alien film focusing to a large extent upon the aliens, District 9 makes heavy use of special effects.  The aliens are almost exclusively computer generated (according to IMDb.com, the only "real" aliens were the aliens on autopsy tables inside the MNU headquarters), and the execution of the effects is extremely high quality, despite the relatively low budget of the film.  Much of the eponymous District was filmed in a real shanty town which was scheduled to be demolished after its human occupants were relocated to a newly built housing, lending a considerable air of authenticity to the scenes set in it.


Filmclip 1: District 9--Wikus evicts Christopher (2009) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mq4i8XlWilQ (Accessed on 24/12/2011)


Lane, A (2009) Only Human: 9 and District 9 Review http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2009/09/14/090914crci_cinema_lane (Accessed on 26/12/2011)

Huddlestone, T (2009) District 9 (2009) http://www.timeout.com/film/reviews/87388/district-9.html (Accessed on 08/11/2011)

IMDb.com (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1136608/ (Accessed on 14/12/2011)

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