No safe haven in District 9

District 9
Directed by Neil Blomkamp

Produced by Peter Jackson

Taking care of an alien life form in modern Johannesburg isn¹t easy, especially when everybody wants to cut your arm off.

20 years ago, an alien spaceship cruised to a halt over Johannesburg. In the present day, 1.8 million aliens that look like the missing link between man and prawn are encamped in a slum on the edge of the city, selling off alien weaponry for precious tinned cat food. They are messy, annoying and dangerous, and have to be moved.

The inevitable culture clash between beings from different solar systems plays out in Neil Blomkamp’s debut feature with intense action sequences and an emotional depth lacking in most larger science fiction films.

Originally slated to helm the movie adaptation of the massively successful Halo video game series, the South African director expanded a 2005 short film into District 9 with the help of fellow filmmaker Peter Jackson when the Halo deal fell apart in 2006.

Blomkamp's short film - Alive in Joburg - forms the basis of District 9, especially in the earliest stages of the movie with its mockumentary format.

But the film piles on the intensity, climaxing in a massive firefight in the slum that suggests Blomkamp would have been more than comfortable directing the larger action scenes intended for Halo.

At first glance, District 9 seems to share common ground with Alien Nation, the movie and television series from the late eighties that saw alien refugees trying to integrate into Los Angeles society with mixed success.

But the film itself actually has more in common with the classic BBC Quartermass serial from the 1950s, as an ordinary man goes through an extraordinary physical metamorphosis, trying to hold onto his soul as he transforms into something monstrous.

Some of these effects are not for the squeamish, with limbs lopped off, fingernails falling out and human bodies instantly turned into piles of red, raw meat when touched by alien technology.

The effects of the film's alien weaponry on fragile human bodies is only the most superficial similarity between Jackson's earlier work and Blomkamp, as each filmmaker shows storytelling and characterisation beats that are unique to their home countries.

Even Jackson's biggest stories have a Kiwi storytelling similarity, a mix of Sam Neil's cinema of unease, a cheerful do-it-yourself mentality and naked sentimentality that hides some trepidation.

In that way, District 9 is very much a South African film. Even the simplest of subtexts that equates treatment of the Prawns with the country's own history of apartheid could only really be used within the context of this particular nation, but there are other traits that mark District 9 as a movie made outside the Hollywood system, including the main characters.

As a nation, South Africans are friendly and stubborn, but they also bred them extraordinarily tough and even the weediest can fire up when pushed to the wall.

Nobody sums this up better than lead actor Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus Van De Merwe, a nerdy bureaucrat who seems friendly enough, but soon finds himself running for his life. Copley does an incredible job as the lead in his first ever feature film, capturing the character's desperation and misery, as well as the hidden strengths that see him fighting back.

The excellent special effects also give the aliens a real emotional weight as they blend seamlessly into the surrounding slum, while still remaining completely otherwordly.

While this leads to the ancient sci-fi theme where humans are the Real Monsters, it does manage to make some nice, if unsubtle, comparisons between corporate heavyweights willing to dissect an employee to harvest his valuable organs and a ganglord of the slum, who just wants an alien arm of his own and is willing to eat anything necessary to get it.

But at a time when big action blockbusters have never been more lightweight, District 9 features depth, intensity and the best use of a live pig as a tactical ballistic missile in film. District 9 is definitely worth a visit, even if you wouldn't want to stay.

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