Starring Sharlto Copley. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. 112 minutes.
In what is already shaping up as an outstanding year for science fiction movies the one that may prove most memorable is DISTRICT 9, a South African thriller with a no-name cast. This is that rare movie that really is something different.
Like “Alien Nation” (1988), it begins with the premise of a large alien population being stranded on Earth. The similarities end there. Their huge spaceship has stalled out over the skies of Johannesburg, South Africa. When humans investigate they find a demoralized and starving population. The aliens – dubbed “prawns” because they look like human size shrimp – are brought down in what was supposed to be a temporary refugee camp.
Twenty years later the area, called District 9, has become a crime-ridden shantytown. Some of the film is presented in documentary-fashion, with interviews and news footage. Although a couple of the aliens become important and even sympathetic characters, they remain completely unknown to us. Why they came here and what their goals are (other than survival) are a mystery. Even their clicking speech requires subtitles, although the human characters on screen seem to understand it.
The story soon comes to focus on Wikus van der Merwe (a memorable performance by first time actor Sharlto Copley). Wikus is a cheery corporate bureaucrat who is put in charge of evicting the aliens to an even more remote location because his father-in-law’s company has been given the job. He is casually bigoted towards the aliens, not really hating them the way some of the other humans do, but treating them with about the same respect you might give a stranger’s bratty child. Then he is exposed to some alien substance which starts transforming him into one of the prawns. As the humans, including his own father-in-law, seem ready to sacrifice him for their own ends, he has to rethink his loyalties.
Director Neill Blomkamp, who co-wrote the film with Teri Tatchell, doesn’t make it easy for us. At first it plays like a thinly disguised parable about apartheid, with the white and black South Africans showing equal ease at suppressing the prawns. (It’s telling that we never learn what name the aliens give themselves.) However as the film focuses on Wikus – with Copley going through a roller coaster of emotional upheavals over the course of the movie – it becomes more complex. Like Wikus we find ourselves siding with the aliens, but we can’t be sure. As one of the talking heads says at the end, we aren’t certain what’s going to happen next.
While “District 9” delivers thrills and chills to spare – the squeamish may have to occasionally avert their eyes – what lingers is the casualness with which we are willing to reduce others to sub-human conditions. The fact that they are aliens is almost beside the point. Is it part of the human condition to need someone to look down upon? If so, “District 9” shows the terrible price that must be paid in return.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.