MrsDarwin and I grabbed a rare chance to take an evening out last night and went to see District 9, a science fiction movie that came out a couple weeks ago. Contrary to stereotype, it was actually MrsDarwin who had latched onto this as the movie to see, and I’m glad she did as it was one of the more enjoyable SciFi flicks that I’ve seen in a while. (Movie Trailer here.)
The premise of District 9 takes a standard SciFi movie plot and turns it sideways. A giant alien ship arrives at Earth and settles over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. And it just hangs there. No aliens appear, nothing happens. After several months, people cut their way into the ship and find hundreds of thousands of aliens in filthy conditions, apparently starving. The aliens are brought down to Johannesburg for humanitarian reasons, but once they’re settled friction results. This is learned in flashback; the movie opens twenty years after the aliens first arrival, by which point the aliens (derisively called “prawns” by most people because of their physical appearance) have for some time been confined to a squalid shanty-town called District 9. Because of mounting crime and distrust, the South African government is seeking to relocate the now 1-2 million aliens to a newly constructed tent city well away from the Johannesburg, District 10. To accomplish this, they’ve hired shadowy multi-national MNU, and the MNU bureaucrat assigned to oversee the eviction is Wikus Van De Merwe, a man clearly in over his head in an operation which will obviously end badly.
What opens as a documentary in which Wikus shows a film crew around District 9 and displays his alien management abilities (as with any culture clash, when people don’t understand you, talk louder) gradually turns into a SciFi action movie, as Wikus finds himself turning into a prawn after accidentally spraying himself with a mysterious fluid which an alien who goes by the name Chris Johnson has been distilling for the last twenty years in an attempt to re-activate an aging command module and get the alien ship working again.
A couple things make this film stand out from your standard big budget aliens-arrive-and-actions-ensue movie. One I was particularly struck by is the realism of the characters and dialogue. Wikus Van De Merwe is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but as you get to know him during the course of the movie he becomes a basically endearing character — and ordinary guy thrust into a strange situation who overcomes some of his prejudices as a result, but becomes neither hero nor martyr. Director Neill Blomkamp had his actors improvise much of the dialogue, and the result in a nice change from the carefully scripted zingers, comebacks and stock characters that inhabit many SciFi action movies. (This especially stood out having seen a preview for 2012 right before the feature.)
Also interesting is that the aliens really are alien — indeed, sufficiently so that it’s never entirely clear what is going on from their perspective. There are clearly several different castes of alien with different abilities (as with ants or bees) and nearly all of those stuck on earth are of a worker caste and not very good at self direction. They’re not attractive to human eyes, and their cultural habits are unclear, their food habits at times disgusting, at other amusing. (They usually eat raw meat, but have an intense attraction to canned cat food.) A sequel (the ending clearly leaves room for one) which did an interesting job of fleshing out the aliens and how they got there would be interesting.
In a moment which will stand out to pro-life viewers, at one point the MNU agents moving through the shanty-town serving eviction notices comes upon a shack full of prawn eggs and larvae. Wikus “unplugs” several eggs and radios for a “population control unit” which proves to be consist of a flamethrower. “Here,” he says, tossing a piece to one of the MNU security men. “Souvenir of your first abortion.” Wikus explains to the camera that the popping sound they hear from the burning shack is of eggs exploding. (We later learn that prawns are supposed to obtain a license to have children.) A few minutes later, as they’re proceeding through the camp, Wikus points to prawn children running by and observes that they’re breeding too fast, too many children. One of the security men points his rifle at the children, “Should I get rid of them?” he asks. “No, no, no,” Wikus responds, putting his hand in front of the muzzle. “You can’t kill them at this age. It’s illegal.”