Action, apartheid and alien brotherhood
SUMMER action movies almost always say very little of consequence. District 9, which opened last weekend, is not guilty of wasting your time.
Set 20 years in the future after an alien spaceship comes to a shuddering halt over Johannesburg, District 9 unleashes an entirely original and energetic take on xenophobia and greed. The aliens have become refugees, powerless to return home and forced to live in the shacks of District 9 – a grimy slum reminiscent of apartheid-era townships (the film title itself is a reference to District 6, a part of Cape Town where 60,000 Cape Coloureds were forcibly evicted after the government declared it a whites-only area).
Shop and playground signs show a world of segregated communities – ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ – while the local human inhabitants have grown tired of supporting the alien outsiders and weary of the crime which comes with their poverty.
Shot partly as a documentary (as well as evoking the social realness of City of God) the audience grows to relate to its two main characters, the human Wikus van der Merwe (played memorably with wit and empathy by new-comer Sharlto Copley) who is in charge of evicting the ‘prawns’ (the slang term for the aliens) and Christopher Johnson – the alien he agrees to help. The CGI is entirely believable (unlike other summer blockbusters – yes, G I Joe, I’m talking about you) but it’s the growing brotherhood between Wikus and Christopher which will convince you most of District 9’s unique heart and soul.
The apartheid allegories fill one with outrage thanks to South African-born director Neil Blomkamp’s deft dissecting of his country’s past and present issues. District 9 is based on Blomkamp’s short film, Alive in Joburg (see below), a similar story of extra-terrestrials stranded in Johannesburg. It so impressed Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) that he offered him the chance to direct Halo, an idea shot down by the executives at Sony Pictures. Jackson turned around to Blomkamp and offered him a chance to make a full length version of Alive in Joburg thus giving the world a sci-fi actioner that could unpack South Africa’s current attitude to race.
His movie draws strong parallels with the recent attacks by fearful South Africans on Zimbabwean and Mozambiquan migrant workers which were witnessed over the past year. District 9 arrives at the right time to point out to a local audience the inherent dangers of such a xenophobic attitude.
I did feel proud, as a South African, to watch it. The special effects are remarkable, the characters immediately engaging and the message delivered in a smart but definitely cool way. The only downside would be the occasionally lazy stereotypes found in the film – the bad guys are mostly white Afrikaaners and the Nigerians in the townships are ruthless con men and gangsters.
But for the most part this presents a very modern South Africa dealing with its past but in an entirely fresh way. What we have here is a sci-fi classic.