“Prawns,” we call them. They’re a horde of aliens, a couple of million strong, half-starved and left for dead in a giant mothership that floated to a stop just over Johannesburg. That was twenty years ago, and since then they’ve been dumped into a shantytown and segregated at gunpoint from the rest of humanity. Not that the rest of humanity wants anything to do with them except goggle at these spindly, tentacle-faced monsters from behind loops of razor wire. Their welfare has since been relegated to the MNU Corporation, who seem more interested in the aliens’ biologically-enhanced weapons than in letting them live in anything more hospitable than a slum.
It all sounds like a slightly grittier retake on Alien Nation, the not-very-good movie (but surprisingly good TV series) which started with roughly the same idea and then quickly ditched it for a formula cops-and-drugs story. District 9 doesn’t make that mistake. It is daring and intelligent and reckless all the way through. It also pulls off a neat trick with all that ambition: its best and smartest ideas are wrapped up inside the kind of audience-pleasing action that all too often become substitutes for those things. I was wondering when we’d get another movie that would sit comfortably in the same company as other maverick SF / social commentary films like Battle Royale, and here we are.
The biggest upfront risk District 9 takes is with its main character: he’s, quite simply, a jerk. A hapless but perennially-smiling MNU flunky named Wikus van der Merwe (Shartlo Copley), he’s been freshly kicked upstairs thanks to his father-in-law, a senior MNU officer. On camera he’s got the brainless manner of a TV reporter who just blithely narrates everything we can already see happening for ourselves. He’s cowardly and officious in about equal measure: he locks horns with both the aliens and the “cowboys” (soldiers) technically under his command, and just plain grates on the nerves. We don’t imagine we’ll sympathize with him — which makes it all the more surprising when we do, after he gets insanely far in over his head.
Wikus has been put in charge of relocating the prawns — apart from “aliens”, the movie has no non-derogatory collective word for them — to a new encampment. Nobody within MNU expects this to be anything but a fiasco; Wikus’s job is mostly to ensure that at least some charade of consent is obtained from the aliens before they’re hustled out of their Bidonville and into tents that hardly seem any better. The whole episode has the same flavor as the legends about the Indians selling Manhattan Island for a pittance: “Just put your scrawl here,” Wikus tells one of the aliens while shoving a clipboard under his face. The alien, livid, smashes it out of his hands. (“That counts as a scrawl,” Wikus insists.)
The aliens themselves aren’t meant to be terribly sympathetic, either. The movie describes them as grunts, low-level workers whose masters have vanished — another abortive Alien Nation idea, but followed up on much better here. With no project to engage them apart from survival, they’ve degenerated: they squat in thrown-together hovels, hoard junk, squabble with each other and with the Nigerian gangs encroaching on their territory, and gobble cat food like it’s candy. (The gangs sell it to them at a massive markup.) But the more we see of them, the more they seem pitiable rather than repellent — a strategy that becomes crucial to the way the film unfolds. At first we want to hate them. Then we realize we’ve got more reasons to feel sorry for them than we do to hate them.
What happens next is impossible to discuss without being a spoiler, so spoil yourself at your leisure. While knocking on shack doors, Wikus discovers an illict lab and inadvertently exposes himself to a catalyst compound of some kind. It’s fuel for the alien weapons and ships, but it has the ghastly side effect of binding with Wikus’s own DNA and mutating him. By the next day, his left hand’s become an monstrous claw — something MNU is very interested in, since it gives him the power to shoot alien guns and interface with their technology generally. They’re not above sacrificing one of their own people for such a discovery, and it isn’t long before Wikus finds himself strapped to an operating table with a surgeon preparing to shove what looks like a high-powered apple corer into his chest.
When Wikus is thrown into horrific circumstances, we empathize,
even if we were prepared all along not to do that.
This is where the movie becomes that much more action-oriented, and also where our sympathies swing that much more in Wikus’s direction even when we think that might be a bad idea. Wikus goes on the run from MNU and forms a most unlikely partnership with “Christopher”, the alien responsible for distilling the fuel. Christopher has a son and a much larger agenda (he hasn’t just been cooking up that fuel as a science experiment), while Wikus just wants his DNA back and his name cleared. There’s no small irony in that they have more in common than either of them thinks: they’re both fugitives, both very far from home, both “displaced peoples”, and as time goes on they share that much more genetic material to boot. The movie wisely doesn’t make them instant buddies — they only pair up with each other because each has something the other needs, they distrust each other deeply all the way through, but out of that they find reasons to stick together and give each other good whacks on the side of the head to keep them in line.
District 9’s shot and edited, at least at first, in the form of a documentary — or maybe a documentary re-enactment, like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. What’s interesting is how it freely deviates from the restrictions of that format as time goes on, but keeps a lot of the stylistic touches — the hand-held cameras, the sudden POV cutaways. The end result isn’t easily confined into any one genre, because it draws on elements from all of them: mock-documentary, “straight” SF, Saving Private Ryan-style war film, experimental cinema. Even when things threaten to become goofy (e.g., Wikus’s mugging, or his vomit-splattered surprise party), the movie’s hammering, breathless style and fearless approach to its material yanks it right back into line. The final third — or maybe even half — of the film is one giant, sprawling action sequence, the sort of thing most movies burn out with but which this one sustains all the way through to its moving coda.
The effects are seamless, because we never think of them as such. Even when the aliens strut (or run, or leap) past the camera, they don’t call attention to themselves: they look like things that are actually there, not something pasted into the frame after the fact. They’re equally convincing — and even emotionally affecting — in close-ups as they are in long shots, which pays off when the movie narrows its focus on Wikus and Christopher. The more we see of Chris the more little things, like his body language or the cast of his eyes, seize our attention. By the halfway mark, we’re not looking at a special effect anymore, but a full-blown character — a guy with a son who’s been struggling in secret for years to get himself and his people back home.
I shy away from thinking about what kind of blood they had to sweat to make all this happen, especially since the camerawork is as spontaneous and ragged as the latter Bourne movies. This is not one of those movies where they either nail the camera down and have fake-looking things move in front of it, or (worse) everything in front of the camera looks equally fake. Then again, maybe we’ve just reached a point where it’s possible to create realism almost casually with such technology, and the new problem is a poverty of imagination on the part of the people using it. Look at 2012, where they spent tons of money to do little more than bring a flabby Irwin Allen camp disaster spectacle up to date. With District 9, there was actual thought and inspiration at work on every level, not just in terms of what they could blow up. A lot gets blown up, though — just not because they can’t think of anything else to do.