While we find it hard to believe, these words are being typed by our own fingers and of free will – thank God Peter Jackson’s Halo project crashed and burned. For if it hadn’t this towering, tumultuous science-fiction satire from South African effects-wizard-turned-director Neill Blomkamp, adapted from his own impressive short, might never have been realized. Cleverly using Jackson’s name over the title to get people’s attention, this one has slowly crept into our consciousness via a fiendishly inventive, perfectly pitched viral marketing campaign the likes of Cloverfield and The Blair Witch. Buying up ad space on billboards and bus stops with provocative posters proclaiming “No Non-Humans” they screamed high-concept while keeping you guessing as to the film’s overall nature. This worked hand-in-hand with an expertly judged teaser trailer made to resemble the kind of geo-political issue-of-the-week fodder theaters typically run as part of their pre-movie magazine package. All this combines to elicit a tantalizing lure and curious sense of anticipation, and boy does Blomkamp deliver, heralding himself as a major cinematic talent.
Set in an alternate present as opposed to a far off and distant future, District 9 sets itself up as a current affairs program with Blomkamp skillfully marrying faux-rolling news, cinema verite, and talking head testimony. In a blistering opening set-up, which will leave you breathless, an avalanche of information and wry satirical detail is dumped on the viewer. Archival footage from some two decades previous details the mysterious arrival of a city-sized space ship seemingly stalled and inoperative over Johannesburg. Months of watching and waiting lead to the decision to attempt to board the vessel and the subsequent discovery of an entire race of alien beings huddled and malnourished inside.
The excitement of first contact gives way to the burden of care as a sprawling shanty town (the eponymous District 9) is swiftly erected and more than one million insect-like extra terrestrials hastily housed. There was no plan, no exit strategy as it were (sound familiar?) and 29-years later the aliens are still there. Strict segregation led to dissent, which gave way to rioting, and an underworld criminal element (Nigerian gangs) assumed unofficial control. Global PMC Multi-National-United assumed responsibility for the whole mess, leaving the creatures to wallow in abject squalor while they try to figure out how to make a buck on their technology, which is genetically coded and maddeningly can’t be operated by humans.
Into this clusterfuck arena strolls Wikus Van De Mewre (Shalto Copley), an obnoxiously chipper MNU paper-shuffler, elevated through reluctant nepotism (MNU CEO is his disapproving father-in-law) to the position of chief administrator of the upcoming resettlement program, which ill see 1.8 million aliens (refered to by the racial slur “prawns”) shunted off to a defacto concentration camp 200km South. While serving eviction notices to the slum dwellers Wikus is accidentally exposed to a chemical that triggers a genetic alteration and gradual transformation into alien-human-hybrid. Vilified by the media, and hunted by MNU, who realize he can operate the alien technology, Wikus must seek help from the aliens he sought to exterminate.
Now while western civilization is notoriously slow on the uptake when it comes to people making fun of it – Starship Troopers Neil Patrick Harris don full Nazi leathers and many people still fail to grasp Verhoeven’s point – this allegory is simply too nauseatingly close to home for even the most obtuse viewer to ignore. Shot in an around the district of Soweto, comprised mostly of dilapidated structures built to house workers during Apartheid, Blomkamp’s point is a simple one; we’re a power-hungry, money-grabbing, xenophobic species and for all our blather about goodwill to all men most of us won’t lift a finger unless it’s expressly in our self-interest to do so. Even after Wikus experiences firsthand the appalling conditions the aliens live in, and receives far more charity than he ever showed them, he still reacts with an assumed sense of superiority and weasel conniving.
If anything Blomkamp almost does too good a job hitting his thematic points out of the park, one after the other. In what will surely be a breakout performance for Copley he plays Wikus as a monstrously unlikable man; a sweaty, blathering, racist bureaucrat gleefully reveling in his moment of glory as he excitedly point out to the imbedded news crew that the sound they hear coming from the torched shack behind him are the screams of unauthorized alien embryos being burnt alive. Beached beyond sympathy it’s next to impossible to warm to Wikus, but Blomkamp has so many different balls in the air, from slights at opportunistic politicians to our lazy tabloid culture, it’s a minor quibble.
Having painstakingly erected a detailed and pointed metaphor for the medieval race-relations alive and well in the 21st century, Blomkamp decides its time to have a little fun. The final third of District 9 is pure, anarchic buddy movie fare in the finest traditions of Hollywood. Teamed up with an alien named Christopher Johnson (exactly), an engineering genius who promises to cure Wikus condition if he helps him and his son get to their mothership above, the pair blaze a trail through the slum perused by MNU mercenaries, unleashing a barrage of imaginative alien death devices that make the gear in Unreal tournament look dull by comparison.
In a way its almost cathartic at this point, watch these murderous thugs get their heads vaporized and their insides splattered and you’ll rightly cheer and cackle at every gory fleshy explosion. But come the final reel Blomkamp brings it all in tight with a closing selection of testimony offering no easy answers. The problems remain and are growing exponentially with no viable solution forthcoming. As the powerful images of sickening brutality and amoral behavior flash through your mind, you’re left shell-shocked and a little bit sick inside.
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood, William Allen Young
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Runtime: 112 Minutes
Distributor: TriStar Pictures