District 9 – 2009
This was a science fiction based movie about real-life socio-political science. It is based on a short film, Alive in Joburg, by Neill Blomkamp, the man who also wrote and directed District 9. It explores themes of xenophobia and social segregation. The story was apparently inspired by the events in District 6 in Cape Town during the apartheid era, in which sixty thousand people were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to suburban ghettos.
This connection was easy to make. There was a realism in the film, despite its science fiction nature. It was all presented in the style of a found-footage documentary. Character interviews, security camera feeds, and news program footage make up nearly the whole film, although at times this has to be somewhat discounted. For example, for half the movie, a man is on the run and yet the camera clearly follows him as he tries to hide. And yet the shaky, hand-held camerawork never goes away, as if the character is being followed by a news crew.
The year is 1982. An extra-terrestrial ship arrives on Earth, full of sick and malnourished aliens. They are bipedal insectoids with moderate apparent intelligence and a propensity towards violent and unpredictable behavior. The somewhat dangerous creatures are segregated into a run-down shanty-town outside of Johannesburg. Twenty-eight years later, the locals demand that the aliens be removed to a new camp. Multinational United, or MNU, is a private military company that is hired to forcibly move the alien population to a different area.
A bumbling corporate “yes” man named Wikus van de Merwe, played by first-time actor, Sharito Coplry, is put in charge of the relocation force. He is not terribly bright, and displays ceaseless prejudices against the undesirable aliens. But for all his species, or one might use the word “racial” slurs, calling the aliens “prawns”, he is portrayed as a good natured man who is only prejudice because everyone is. During the day when eviction notices are given to the alien residents of District 9, Wikus is sprayed with a strange biochemical fluid. And here is where, for me, the movie turns from its commentary on politics, racism, prejudice and social injustice, and becomes a horror movie.
The infected Wikus undergoes a transformation in which he turns into one of the insect-like aliens. His hand turns into a claw. The fingernails of his other hand begin to peel off. Horrifying growths begin appearing all over his body. Over the course of the film, as his transformation progresses, Wikus is horrified and disgusted by what is happening to him. He is slowly turning into an inhuman monster. And for some reason, for me, that is the stuff of nightmares.
But really, that is only part of the plot. What is more important is what the MNU does to Wikus when they discover his condition. They begin to experiment on him, and eventually decide to dissect him. Wikus is terrified of his growing physical deformities, and even more terrified by the way his fellow humans turn on him. Not to mention being separated by his deformity from his poor wife, Tania, played by Vanessa Haywood. The plot was unique and well told.
That is… until about two-thirds the way through the movie, at which point it becomes a science fiction action thriller, complete with an armored robot battle, a gun fight, and a horrifying death by dismemberment for the main villain, the evil and psychotic military man, Colonel Koobus Venter, played by David James.
The aliens themselves were almost portrayed as mindless savages, except for the smart one in the orange vest, named Christopher Johnson, played by Jason Cope, and his uber-intelligent son. Wikus escapes his tormentors and hides out inside District 9. He teams up with Christopher to recover the canister of biochemical fluid that will power the space ship and allow the aliens to leave Earth. Christopher says he can reverse Wikus’ metamorphoses, but after learning that humans are torturing and experimenting on his people, he leaves to get reinforcements to save them, leaving the poor man to completely transform into an alien.
But the most horrifying part, for me is that it is clearly shown that Wikus retains his own human mind, even though his body is now just that of another alien, one of two and a half million of them living in the new alien ghetto, which looks like a garbage landfill. Very, very sad. The man in the body of a monster, waiting in vain for Christopher to return to make him human again. Again, I know it wasn’t the main focus of the movie, but for me, it was the plot’s most disturbing aspect.