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District 9 (2009)
Director: Neill Blomkamp

review by J.C. Hartley

Everyone now must know that director Neill Blomkamp, with the backing of Peter Jackson and the mighty WETA Studios, was in line to make the adaptation of Halo from popular game to big screen extravaganza. When funding, ownership, and the usual wrangles consigned Halo to one of the spheres of development hell, Jackson proposed Blomkamp develop District 9 from the latter's own short Alive In Joburg.

Twenty years previously, a giant spaceship has stalled above the South African capital Johannesburg. On gaining entry it is discovered to be full of sickly malnourished arthropods unnamed but derogatorily referred to as 'prawns' after their resemblance to the Parktown prawn a giant native cricket. The aliens are housed in a government camp which has become a slum and where Nigerian crime gangs exploit their various appetites. At the opening of the film the administration of the aliens has been handed over to a private company MNU which uses military force to control the ghetto. The aliens are due to be forcibly relocated to another camp in response to public concern. MNU is methodically seizing alien technology, particularly weaponry, in order to adapt and exploit it, as are the Nigerian gangs under their leader the crippled Obesandjo. The hitch for MNU is that the weaponry is genetically specific and cannot be operated by humans.

Responsibility for the relocation is given to Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an MNU bureaucrat whose father-in-law happens to be a prominent MNU director. While overseeing the operation Wikus becomes contaminated by an alien liquid collected by the alien Christopher Johnson, the aliens having been named and registered. This liquid affects Wikus' DNA and effectively makes him mutate into a 'prawn'. The MNU are quick to recognise the benefits of their employee's misfortune and after it is shown that he can now interact with alien technology, including the ability to operate their devastating weaponry, plans are developed to harvest his genetic material.

The film is a combination of straightforward narrative, documentary newsreels, straight-to-camera interviews, street-level vox-pop, and Office-style fly-on-the-wall reportage with star Copley improvising much of his dialogue and exposition. The first third of the film is composed of this reality-type footage, the second third is a scatological nightmare as Wikus' transformation takes hold, and the final third is largely shoot-'em-up gaming action.

There is much about the film that doesn't quite come off. Two hours of the South African accent is a little too much to take, especially with Wikus directing the ludicrous 'fok' and 'fokken' expletive at all and sundry. The Nigerian crime gangs are a bit stereotyped, and probably a racial slur that has already drawn complaints, Obesandjo's desire to eat an alien arm to obtain its power is both risible and unpleasant. Although a commentator on the soundtrack suggests that the alien's reversion to a kind of savagery might be due to the removal of their sense of purpose indicating a sort of drone mentality, it might be due to their substandard housing, and why Christopher Johnson and his just-the-right-side-of-Yoda-style-cuteness son are the only intelligent aliens is not explained. David James' sadistic Colonel Venter is a giant Boer stereotype. However in a world where TV channel bosses think an SF night is a re-run of Independence Day and Alien vs. Predator, this film is an intelligent emulsion of horror and SF, a bag full of originality and ideas.

Some of the film makes for uncomfortable viewing but its political swiping at apartheid is on the money. The knowledge that much of the filming was in an actual occupied township using real dwellings and on site props such as animal carcases and huge mounds of junk is sobering. There is a strong strain of satire and some broad comedy. In the early throes of his mutation Wikus manages to drive back home only to be seized by a bout of uncontrollable farting on his doorstep, his wife admits him to his darkened home where he barely confesses that he may have shit his pants only for the lights to go up on a surprise party to celebrate his promotion. The vomiting and the loss of fingernails and teeth are not for the squeamish.

This is a brilliant mainstream debut for Blomkamp, and for non-professional actor Copley. Expect great things if the pair are not ground down by the Hollywood machine.

District 9 poster

District 9 advert



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