District 9 is the antidote to the cynical, CGI-obsessed, P.T. Barnum-esque schlock that passes for sci-fi filmmaking these days, films in which people and plot matter little in the service of razzle-dazzle special effects and things that go boom in the night. (Yes, Michael Bay, I’m talking to you. Go forth and “Transform” no more.) It is savagely satirical, yes, sparing no one while sending up xenophobia, the military industrial complex and humankind’s baser instincts. But beneath all that existential angst pulses a surprisingly tender—and hopeful—heart.
It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
You could make the argument that in lesser, American hands, District 9 would look very, very different. It’s the difference between, say, Stephen Sommers’ G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, between Bay’s Armageddon and Duncan Jones’ Moon. But District 9 is written and directed by South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, and produced by seminal New Zealander Peter Jackson, he of The Lord of the Rings blockbusters. There is a different sensibility at work here, and a most welcome one at that.
District 9 starts out mockumentary style, with a simple premise: A couple of decades back, aliens from outer space arrived in a massive mother ship and … just hung out for three months, hovering above Johannesburg. No beatific beings stepped down to great the humanoids, a la Close Encounters. Nor did evil aliens demonstrate intentions to kick some human ass a la Mars Attack and Independence Day. (Though it must be said, the District 9 spaceship looks a lot like the one in Will Smith’s flick, a deliberate move, we are sure, on Blomkamp’s part.)
Finally, some brave souls fly up to the spaceship and open it up, only to discover, not “music from heaven and bright shining lights,” as one witness puts it, but a horror show of malnourished, badly frightened aliens cowering in the dark. One million of them. It is a fleeting, yet powerful image, one conjuring visions of the hull of a slave ship post Middle Passage. (As well as boat people and the undocumented crammed into the trunks of cars, crossing the U.S./Mexican border.) The aliens, now refugees, are moved to a temporary camp, dubbed District 9. Whereupon they quickly wear out their welcome.
These aliens, derisively dubbed “prawns,” or bottom feeders, are far from the cuddly creature that inhabited E.T. Rather, they are human-sized, garbage-eating roaches for whom canned cat food is their crack. They will do anything for cat food, including selling their considerable cache of weapons to a greedy band of Nigerian gangsters who’ve set up camp in the alien townships. They are feral and ferocious, speaking in a weird, clicking language. (A language that references that of the South African Xhosas, immortalized in Miriam Makeba’s “Click Song.”) No one likes them: Black South Africans take to the streets, demanding that the aliens be removed: “At least they’re keeping them separate from us,” a black South African declares without irony in a classic case of N.I.M.B.Y. (Not In My Backyard).
Something must be done. And that something turns out to be an intergovernmental program (the “Multinational Union”) to move the aliens from their current township to District 10—a camp far, far from the madding crowd. (The film is influenced by South Africa’s real-life, apartheid-era District 6 in Capetown, where its inhabitants were forcibly removed during the 1970s.) Heading up the eviction program is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, in a breakout role), a cheerfully clueless naïf with a lethal dark side. Wikus sets out to evacuate the prawns with all deliberate speed, irrevocably changing his life course—and that of everyone around him, human and alien—in the process.
Yes, you are meant to think about apartheid (Wikus and his superiors are clearly Afrikaner), and perhaps the Trail of Tears, too. You are also meant to feel discomfited: The Nigerians are violent and venal, practicing witchcraft and alien cannibalism. You could holler racial stereotyping, but are the Nigerians here any worse than the white South Africans gleefully blowing up prawns and conducting medical experiments on the survivors? There is a pervasive sense of doom and urgency surrounding District 9, but somehow it never feels heavy-handed.
This is a tricky thing to accomplish, but somehow, Blomkamp manages to do this, mixing action-packed drama with humor and social commentary, while exploring the limits of love, both romantic and parental. The filmmakers aren’t afraid to play with technology—and one of the aliens looks a lot like the robotic critters in the Transformers flicks—but here, the whiz-bang stuff is used in service to the plot and not the other way around.
It’s hard to make good sci-fi these days. And District 9 succeeds where others have failed because it refuses to rely on trickery to tell its story. And note: It has a story to tell. Yes, lots of things go boom, and yes, lots of body parts go flying, but District 9 never veers from the basics: Introduce a classically conflicted hero, riddled with flaws and driven by a powerful motivation. Throw in lots of obstacles along the way, including antiheroes hell-bent on doing him in. Throw in themes that speak to larger truths. Create a dystopia not too far from present-day reality. Layer on humor, wisecracks and a smattering (not too much) of pathos. Pile on nuance. Keep the audience guessing.
And guess they will: There is no predictable ending here, only open-ended possibilities that filmgoers will relish in unraveling long after the final credits have rolled to a stop. Will there be a District 10? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But one can hope.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior culture writer.