District 9 (2009) – Sci Fi Action With Brains and Soul

Posted: August 28, 2009 in Bill Martell
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District 9
District 9 – Sci Fi Action with brains and soul.

by Bill Martell
Sex in a Submarine / Script Secrets

It’s a foreign film, so it’s cultural.

So, here we are at the end of summer… and not a great summer. Though there have been some gems like HURT LOCKER and HANGOVER, most of the films have been big really stupid popcorn flicks. Last summer we have IRON MAN and DARK KNIGHT, two films that worked as popcorn *and* were good films that actually explored characters and issues. Movies that were both kinds of good. This year it seems like no one was trying to make movies that were “popcorn plus”, instead we’ve had good popcorn like STAR TREK and bad popcorn like… well, too many to name them all. What happened? Has the slump in DVD sales made the studios stop thinking about tomorrow? And aftermarkets? Hey, no one’s buying DVDs anyway, so why make a film that is good enough that people will want to own it and see it again and again? Let’s just make completely disposable summer popcorn flicks that people forget as soon as they’ve seen them? (Hmm, maybe that’s the marketing plan – if the film is really forgettable consumers will have to see the film again on DVD?) The problem with making completely disposable summer films is that they cost so damned much. There was a time when a movie could live just on cinema box office receipts, but with summer popcorn films costing as much as $250 million, many of these films *need* the DVD money to make a profit for the studio. The thing I do not understand – it costs the same to make a big popcorn movie with a brain as it does to make a big stupid popcorn movie – so why not make the version that I want to buy on DVD and see again, rather than the version that makes me want to go home right after the movie and pop in IRON MAN or BATMAN BEGINS into the DVD player to wash away any memory of that crappy film I just paid $11.50 to see?

So, here comes this $30 million sci-fi film from South Africa with no one in it you’ve ever heard of (Shia LaBouf isn’t in a single frame of this film, thankfully) and it opens at #1 in the USA on opening weekend and ends up #2 in its second weekend… and I suspect this will be one of those word-of-mouth films that hang around for a while. Oh, and I already want to buy the DVD because I not only want to see the behind the scenes making of stuff, I want to see the movie again.

For years, South Africa was a cheap place to shoot Hollywood movies – when they couldn’t afford to shoot the LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake in the USA, they shot it in South Africa. So they have good crews there with all kinds of experience making Hollywood movies… but I can’t really tell you the last time I saw a South African film in a US cinema. Maybe one of the Harry Alan Towers flicks for Cannon qualifies as indigenous South African. Well, they’ve conquered America, now.

DISTRICT 9 is a pseudo documentary, and part of what makes it creepy is that “bug” in the lower right corner identifying it as property of the company our hero Wikus (Sharlto Copely) works for. There’s an old Sean Connery movie, THE ANDERSON TAPES, about a large scale burglary that has been completely recorded on audio by… someone. This was probably the first film about how everything we do is now recorded by some form of surveillance equipment. The idea that all of the things we see in DISTRICT 9 were recorded on video from surveillance cameras and are in some company’s vault is chilling.

But at first, the film seems like a boring documentary. Lots of talking heads and commentators and footage that seems like it belongs on the History Channel. Except this mundane footage is all about an alien space ship that just stalled out over Johannesburg. One of the amazing things in the film is the complete understatement. The huge space ship, which would be an amazing special effect in some Hollywood film and would get all kinds of close ups and action shots, is just this thing hanging in the sky in the background of shots. When Wikus drives to his suburban home, the space ship can be seen in the background of the shot. It’s just there – no big deal. The tone of the film is bland, documentary style, and even the aliens are treated as another boring element in our story. They’ve been living in District 9 for the past 20 years, they are nothing special anymore. Now they are just another part of everyday life – the make the nightly TV news only if there’s a riot or some other newsworthy event in District 9. Usually, the aliens are kind of out of sight and out of mind.

But the doc is about the removal of the aliens from District 9, and their relocation to a far off area which looks good on the brochures they have printed up for the aliens, but is really a tent city so far away from human population that even the riots won’t end up on the nightly news. Wikus has been given the job of supervising the relocation, and he’s a vapid bureaucratic idiot who often slips and calls the aliens by the “P word” during the interview. He even justifies using the term because the aliens look like prawns, don’t they? Oh, and the reason why he was put in charge of this? He’s the son-in-law of the government official in charge of Alien Affairs. The first phase is to go door-to-door in the alien shanty town and serve eviction notices. They need the aliens’ scrawl on the form to make it legal. Because there are documentary cameras rolling, Wikus will be going in personally to help serve notices… and we follow along.

There’s some great suspense built around there not being enough bullet proof vests for Wikus’s number two man (William Allen Young) – and once they drive into the walled and barb wired District 9, it’s filled with poverty and crime and gangs and violence… and you worry that number two guy is going to get shot. But Wikus oblivious to just about everything – they do a great job of making him so dumb he comes off innocent. When he calls the aliens “prawns” to their face, you think he just doesn’t know any better. He’s not *maliciously* racist. He doesn’t hate the aliens. He just sees them as being animals. This allows us to see him as racist without being repulsed by him.

We *are* repulsed by the racist military guy Koobus (David James) who is providing security for the operation. He is itching to kill him some prawns. He thinks the best solution to the alien problem is just to kill them all. If this eviction thing turns into a riot? That would be a great excuse to fire a few missiles and drop a few bombs. This character gives us both sides of racism, so that we can use the actions in the story itself to “discuss” the issue. Whenever there’s a situation where either diplomacy or military action can be used, Wikus and Koobus represent each of these standpoints in the debate… and, the debate is usually after all hell has broken loose in District 9 and the aliens are attacking them. Not some dry discussion of racism but a run-and-gun argument about how they can survive.

Though I’m not sure we identify with Wikus, once he gets into the dangerous world of District 9, we *do* worry about him, because he is way over his head. He’s like a baby who has wandered into a cage full of Michael Vick’s pitbulls… and then picks up a stick and starts poking them. You worry for the baby, you know the baby is doing something stupid… but it’s a baby, it doesn’t know any better. Wikus is a baby. He is blind to his own racism, but the story is designed to open his eyes. As he goes from shack to shack trying to get aliens to sign their eviction notices, suspense moves a little into the background – this is a documentary, and we begin to get used to what is happening (even though, I have to tell you, the aliens are just amazing in this film. I wondered whether they used actors in green suits as substitutes so that the on-camera actors would have someone to talk to. No amount of mundane attitude on screen can take away from the fantastic CGI work in this film – it’s *better* than the stuff in GI JOE, much more realistic!). But just when we have lowered our guard, we see a couple of aliens up to no good, collecting some black fluid that will allow them to enact some secret plan.

Okay, I’ve decided not to spoil it all by talking about the specifics of what happens next… But for a movie with a giant flying saucer in just about every shot, where well over half the beings on screen are amazing CGI aliens, this film is not about any of those things… it’s all about Wikus. It’s not about the special effects, like a Hollywood movie, it’s about the people. Wikus goes through several transformations in the course of the story, and if we didn’t identify with him at the beginning, we do later on and really begin to care about the guy and see the story through his eyes.

When things go wrong in District 9, Wikus begins to see the aliens, not as a bureaucratic problem or as animals or as “prawns”, but as *people* with the same sort of problems that humans have. He comes to understand their struggle… and slowly switches sides. And this is so subtle, there is no dialogue about his “transformation” and change in beliefs. No idiot lines the writer had to put in the script for the development execs and producers that no one removed before filming. Just as the documentary “bug” stays in the lower right hand side of the screen, the reality of the situation remains. The character gradually changes scene-by-scene without us really noticing – except this casually racist bureaucrat has now become a friend to the alien they have named “Chris” and believes the aliens have rights.

Along with the emotional changes in Wikus, he also goes through a physical change that is connected to another change on the emotional side that turns him from a bumbling bureaucrat into an action hero. Though I think Charles Pogue may be due a check for some of the story ideas, eventually the film becomes a really unusual buddy action flick with Wikus and the alien they call “Chris” kicking some military ass and blowing some things up real good. But even when we are in the middle of a massive battle scene where they break into a top secret government installation, the story never loses sight of the people (including aliens) in the scenes. Even the action scenes have an emotional component and deal with Wikus and his relationship with “Chris” and his new feelings of guilt over being a casual racist who allowed his government to herd these alien people up into pens, like cattle. This entire story is about Wikus seeing the error of his ways and changing them to become a more honorable person. It’s about Wikus transforming from a guy who sees the aliens as “prawns”, animals, different… to seeing them as not much different than himself – and seeing “Chris” as a friend. Unlike any of the big dumb Hollywood special effects films we’ve had this summer (including STAR TREK), this film is really about the people in the story. Like all good sci-fi, it’s a metaphor, an allegory. It’s not just about the aliens and action scenes, it’s about a social issue that touches all of our lives.

The film takes many unexpected turns, and presents some information to us in a way that exposes *our* racism – I suspect this may be uncomfortable to some viewers. My racist beliefs took me down the wrong path at one point – and that made me reevaluate myself. The film holds a fun-house mirror up to society – and up to ourselves – and shows us who we really are in the safety of a science fiction story about battles between humans and aliens.

And, what is pure fantasy for those of us in the USA is only part fantasy in South Africa, where they had Apartheid until recently, and a similar story played out when relocating people from District 6.

Go for the special effects and really cool action scenes, leave thinking about racism…

And hoping you won’t have to wait 3 years for the sequel.
DISTRICT 9 (2009)

  1. Yeah but no but.
    Why no interesting lead black characters or women ?
    Only support roles as Bad Nigerian Gangster Boss & thug crew, wife of Wikus fooled by her Father…fx seemed like a collage from Transformers especially with the exoskelton weapon. The shoot em ups were given boost once “alien weaponry” used but that seemed like Men in Black again. Peter jackson’s early films blood and guts gore fest is also collaged in.
    The directors seemed to have got the producers t put in $ if it looks like a lot of other films but with exotic twist being set in Jo’burg. Like the Corporate “rock and roll” this is formulaic but will no doubt be popular with boys.
    Other Azanian films like Tsotsi are really more interesting.

  2. […] See also: District 9 (2009) District 9 (2009) – Sci Fi Action With Brains and Soul […]

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