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An unexpected Treasure with a Twist
District 9 is a twist on the classic science fiction story of alien invasion.
The image of the giant saucer hanging over the city we've seen often enough, but this spacecraft is nothing like Independence Day or the television series V.
It's not hanging over New York or London, but over Johannesburg, and these particular alien visitors arrive on Earth not as conquerors, but as starving, demoralised refugees. They are forced into a corporation-run refugee camp, where their growing numbers present a massive strain on post-apartheid society.
District 9 is a a fine debut film from South African director Neill Blomkamp and extends allegory to its real-world context, where memories of the townships are still very fresh.
Like any good sci-fi, it's an allegorical exploration of human society and, although it tackles the ghosts of an apartheid past, the message is universal.
As presented by the documentary style introduction, 28 years earlier aliens had arrived from an unknown place for an unknown purpose. The refugees are settled in a region near Johannesburg now titled District 9 which doesn't take long to turn into a slum replete with dirt, crime, starvation, and corruption.
The narrative opens as the private company in charge of alien affairs - the sinister and all too credible Multinational United (MNU) - sets out to evict all of the aliens and move them to District 10, a tent city hundreds of kilometres outside Johannesburg that is, even in MNU's estimates, nothing less than a concentration camp
The central character, Wikus
The film focuses on Wikis Van De Merwe, the MNU office pen-pusher who is given the task of handing out millions of eviction notices in readiness for the forced exodus to District 10.
Wikus heads happily off into District 9 armed with a clipboard, a small army of MNU mercenaries, and his own supreme and patronising confidence that the aliens are inferior creatures to be treated with a firm and fatherly hand.
You can't help but like Vilkus, he's an affable, somewhat clumsy fellow completely out of his depth and horrified when confronted with the brutality of the MNU mercenaries. One aspect, both compelling and chilling, is his own casual racism towards the aliens.
Through an accident, Vilkus is infected with some sort of alien fluid and his DNA begins to change - he gradually becomes part alien himself.
As he becomes less human, he becomes more humane
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Hunted and hounded through the bizarre back alleys of an alien shantytown, one man discovers what it means to be the ultimate outsider on your own planet.
What makes District 9 so good is that you truly never know what is going to happen next.! The sheer unpredictability of the film helps make it so magnetic, and newcomer Copley manages to be ineffectual, likable, sympathetic and heroic all at the same time as his character continues to develop and change (literally) as the story unfolds.
More than a story of racism and xenophobia
The image of the ship, hanging overhead, is a weight all through this movie - both conscious and unconscious,
Early in the film we see Wikus arriving home after a gruelling day of serving eviction notices. Hanging over his very comfortable middle class home is the massive alien ship, suggesting that truly horrifying things hang over the world of men like Wikus, clerks and petty officials who committed deplorable acts of injustice in the name of good government. For this is a film about apartheid, clearly intended as a criticism of apartheid.
it's a story of racism and xenophobia, but it's more than this. its a story of humanity. and whether any of us have the right to call ourselves human.
I've never been fully comfortable with the Cloverfield - Blair Witch style of film, but after viewing District 9 I've become a fan. I was grabbed, right from the start, by the gritty, handheld, quasi-documentary realism.
I would have liked to have seen more of the relationship developing between Wilkus and the alien he begins to befriend. This part of the story is lost when violence erupts.
Is there an opening for a 'District 10? Probably not, but I want to see more. That's what good storytelling is about, leaving me hoping for more.
District 9 is rated R for buckets of gore and prolific use of offensive language. If I had been clever enough to bring my glasses to the video store in order to read the tiny print on the back of the disc cover, I wouldn't have got it myself. I'm glad I left my specs at home!
All comments are greatly appreciated.
© 2014 Susanna Duffy