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The West Wing
A sci-fi/action story set in a fictional world, where extraterrestrials have become refugees in South Africa.
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Some time in the near future, the most important moment in human civilization occurs when alien life finally visits mankind in the shape of a giant mothership that suddenly appears several miles above Johannesburg, South Africa.
Fast-forward some 20 years and it turns out not to have been quite so important after all. The mothership, in turns out, contains 1.8 million insect like aliens—unaffectionately nicknamed ‘prawns’ – who are more interested in digging through garbage and eating cat food than enlightening mankind. With nothing of obvious interest to offer, the aliens are interred in make shift camps that grow into horrifying, de… alienifying slums.
There aren’t that many short films that can make the leap to feature length, especially not from the sub-10 minute variety. They’re more about mood and color and quick splashes of thought, and that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to character or plot or heart. And yet, that is exactly what makes director Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” does so well.
A quasi-expansion of Blomkamp’s short “Alive in Joburg.” Like that film, “District 9” is very clearly a meditation of sorts on South Africa’s albatross, apartheid. Based somewhat on the real life District 6 in Cape Town, District 9 is the seemingly unending ghetto the aliens have been forced into, but which is getting harder and harder to control. To bring its denizens back in hand, MNU—the multi-national corporation that has contracted the running of District 9 from the government—has decided to forcibly remove the aliens to a new camp. And look most of the truly awful, evil things that have occurred in human history, it is under the eye of a fairly unassuming bureaucrat, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley).
Because the aliens aren’t human it is extremely easy for everyone who engages with them to think of them as less than human. To think nothing of experimenting on them, of killing their unborn children to keep their numbers down, of tricking and betraying them out of their advanced technology. As it turns out, the only interest anyone has in the aliens is learning how their superior weaponry works, specifically how to make it work for anyone other than one of the aliens.
An accident puts Wikus in the middle of that quest as he finds himself the world’s first functioning human-alien hybrid, and gets a quick crash course in how the other half lives.
“District 9” is not a particularly subtle movie, for all of its qualities. It quickly tosses away John Campbell’s first rule of aliens--"write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man"--in order to serve its overall themes. As inhuman as the aliens look, at heart they aren’t that different Wikus or any of the other people in the film. Which is certainly what “District 9” is about, but isn’t particularly realistic.
Which wouldn’t be more than a nitpick if verisimilitude didn’t seem to be Blomkamp’s watchword. Mixing pseudo-documentary with lots of hand-held footage showcasing some truly realistic looking CGI, he’s doing his best to create a complete realistic world that could actually exist somewhere. And visually, he succeeds. “District 9” is stunning to look at, and all the more so when you realize it was made for less than 1/5th of something like “Transformers.” And even more impressive is that as much care has been put into the characters as the visuals.
The only thing that doesn’t really fit into the milieu he has created are the aliens themselves, because they’re not really aliens. To be fair, he’s not trying to recreate what contact with an alien race might be like—as much as the mise en scčne of the film may feel that way—as much as examining mankind’s own xenophobia and inhumanity to itself, and on that level “District 9” succeeds mightily.
Hunted by his former employers and friends, Wikus has no choice but to turn to a ‘prawn’ named Christopher who has promised to cure him if he helps the ‘prawns’ take control of their ship and return home. It’s the relationship between Wikus and Christopher that really makes “District 9” go; especially once he turns the corner to proactively doing something to help himself. It’s complex, not entirely happy, based on a lot of self-interest and selfishness. But ultimately it’s a relationship of equals who recognize that in each other. And that’s talking about two people where one is a 6 foot computer generated insect.
Action junkies might be a bit put off, in fact, by how much work is put into Wikus and Christopher’s relationship. Blomkamp is plainly more interested in setting up all of his motivations and situations before finally getting to a big action finish and your standard summer audience may have trouble sitting still waiting for the giant robot and alien lightning gun to show up. It is entirely worth it once it does, but mainly because you actually care what happens to these people, not just because the villainous mercenaries pop like water balloons.
“District 9’s” not without its rough edges. It’s a bit obvious, a bit heavy handed, and doesn’t take as full advantage of its premise as it could. But it’s also a visually spectacular action film that cares mostly about its characters, and that’s about a rare a thing as you can find in film today.