District 9: Close Encounters of the Prawn Kind
District 9 is stylistically unlike any sci-fi film I’ve seen– it’s a wonder that it works as well as it does. Its beginning is pieced together from “documentary footage,” delivering a doozy of a set-up, but only hinting at the plot. It then turns to sci-fi/horror, with our main character undergoing more than just a change of mindset, and discovering that those in charge of District 9 have some disturbing secrets. However, there are only small snippets of action, while Blomkamp surrounds us with cool alien weapons, terrific effects, and hints of the violent conflict to come. Then, when you finally settle in to this stylistic choice, the film blasts quite literally into non-stop thrills, delivering some of the most intense and unpredictable action this year (or any recent year) has seen. Don’t kick yourself and wait for DVD if the documentary aspect or the high concept turn you off– this is one of the smartest, most skillful, and most entertaining films of 2009.
In the 1980s, a giant spacecraft parks itself over Johannesburg– not New York, Washington DC, or Chicago, the film points out, as if to say, “We’re not your average alien film.” The aliens are shrimp-looking humanoids, called “prawns” by the humans as a quasi-racial slur. While much has been made of the racial allegory (since South Africa’s history cannot be ignored), Blomkamp never plays that card, letting the audience draw conclusions for itself. Besides, in the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see that the prawns have killed many humans, bombed vehicles and building, and even formed gangs; it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think maybe these creatures did land with ulterior motives and are biding their time. By making the prawns dangerous instead of passive victims, Blomkamp keeps us on our toes from the very start. Audiences like to try to figure out a film as it goes, patting themselves on the back– I can’t think of a film since Children of Men that was this difficult to predict.
We meet the “hero,” Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), as he’s shooting some interview footage for a documentary. He’s a paper-pusher who achieved his promotion due to nepotism– his wife’s dad runs MNU (Multi-National United), who help to contain the prawns to a militarized ghetto, and are planning to ship them out of South Africa using forms of dubious legality. Wikus is not your usual nice-guy main character. He uses the term prawn liberally and is not above threatening to kidnap a prawn’s son in order to get him to comply. Usually, these films deal with ignorant average joes who find redemption for their one measly flaw of racial ignorance by the end. Wikus is a nice guy in the sense that he’s mild-mannered, but he’s a coward (he’d rather keep his bulletproof vest on than give it to a friend), he’s a racist, he’s woefully under-qualified for his job, and he often times acts like a downright idiot. Much of the population in the film agrees: we see Wikus being driven towards District 9 as liberal protesters holding signs that read “We Love The Prawns” start beating against his vehicle. Copley’s performance is praiseworthy, especially when considering this is his first ever film acting job (!!!), because he compels the viewer not by begging for sympathy, but by being interesting– a much more difficult feat.
Through the documentary footage, people keep making passing references to “what Wikus did,” leading you gradually towards the plot, but the film meticulously takes it time, fleshing out the world and all of its conflicts. Thr prawns have powerful weaponry that is invaluable to MNU, but only prawns are able to operate them– their triggers are tied biologically to their creators. There is a group of Nigerians who live in District 9, savagely kill prawns, and their leader tries eating them in an attempt to gain access to these incredible weapons. The depictions of the Nigerians borders on cartoonish, and my hesitations at their one-dimensional malevolence (especially with such a white hero) were mostly put at ease by the fact that the white people who run MNU are so much worse, even if their motivations are more fully rounded. While this aspect of the film may rub some the wrong way, there is no denying their impact on the narrative, especially in the final third of the film, is tremendous and exciting.
The film’s first major shift in tone comes when all of a sudden, without warning, the documentary style ends and we watch two prawns having a conversation. This shift is jarring for about one minute, but the tension is so high that we immediately forget the initial awkwardness, and Blomkamp starts the plot right away with a bang. Without revealing any of the details, let me reveal some moments that stick out in my head in the middle third of the film: an homage to The Fly, a black liquid gross-out scene that puts Drag Me To Hell to shame, a cast being removed, exploding pigs, a TV broadcast about prawn sex, a phone call to the father of a mourning woman, the consumption of cat food, and Copley delivering a performance that is so demanding that it’s astonishing to think he has not acted in film before. Rarely in these paper-pusher-to-renegade-hero films is the transformation smooth or believable. Here, Wikus is pushed to the brink, and Copley’s hollow-eyed portrayal of Wikus’ struggles conveys it flawlessly.
Finally, and at the moment you least expect it, the movie shifts into full-blown action. If anyone ever doubted Blomkamp’s future as a film director, watch how expertly the fight scenes are staged and edited, and how cheap effects look anything but, since the sound effects and our investment in the story have the prawns, the weapons, and anything CGI in the film look like some of the best effects of the year. If Blomkamp did this was only 30 million dollars, I wonder with all of my heart where Stephen Sommers and Michael Bay’s bank-breaking budgets went. These effects were terrific, the action executed tremendously, and with intriguing stories and thought-provoking set-ups around three-dimensional characters. Even the prawns give good performances, with wide soulful eyes and emotive body language, whereas most CGI work in films is made without a trace of emotion. Like in all great action sequences, the odds get stacked so tremendously against Wikus that we sit in awe, wondering if a happy ending is impossible. While this film resorts to a deus ex machina (pun?), it’s such a tremendously neat twist that you don’t care. I left the theater with a huge grin on my face– stylistically, it’s unlike any sci-fi film I’ve ever seen. It has enough intelligence to please the arthouse crowd and the older critics, while it has enough action and terrific effects work to please the layman. In a summer where critics and audiences have diverged in opinion, here is a film we can all agree is great.
Note: the critics who disliked the film all cite that Blomkamp resorts to turning the film into an action shoot-em-up at the end. When did action become a dirty word for critics? Truth be told, a well-shot action sequence with believable effects on no budget is a much greater task than creating another suburban family film, Holocaust drama, or other genres older critics immediately give a 4-star stamp to without hesitation.