District 9 begins with an alien spacecraft looming in the skies over Johannesburg, South Africa. Inside, rather than invaders, are planetary orphans, terrified and starving. Though they do have weapons, they are not used, whether because they are intimidated by the world they have found, or because of their weakened condition, is not addressed. This 20-year alien history is told, at the beginning, in TV interviews and TV camera angles — what is now known as a mockudrama.
At first, world governments have high hopes for some break-out new technology. So with good intentions the creatures are transferred to terra firma, where they are given their own section of land. But the hoped-for technology never materializes. And as difficulties and complications mount, people begin to fear the aliens (who could barely take care of themselves in this — to them — alien environment). District 9 is turned into a refugee camp with the aliens just another round of victims that can be easily exploited. Earth history is rife with them.
As people are wont to do with problems they are unprepared to handle, they simply try their best to make them go away. A company is hired called Multi-National United (MNU) to take care of their problem. The head of the company, Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar) hires his son-in-law, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to oversee the operation of alien relocation. I gathered that Wikus was hired because of his lack of skills and timidity. In other words, sadly unemployable. Daddy-in-law was desperate and took advantage of the opportunity.
Wikus goes on to be the poster boy for petty bureaucracy. Backed by armed forces, and lacking any kind of moral fiber, he vacillates between wanting to be the good guy and doing a good job, and being pulled into the riotous vortex of the brutal WNU enforcers. Wikus moves from trying the soft glove treatment to heinous acts of his own.
When Wikus is accidentally sprayed by a substance prepared in secret by a highly intelligent alien with the name Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), he finds he has been contaminated and is slowly turning into the very thing he despises. His forearm turns into a claw. As he screams in horror when doctors reveal the arm, he then finds he has become the subject of experimentation, since only the DNA of the aliens can fire the weapons collected from the ship. His wife, Tania (Vanessa Haywood), worriedly sitting in the waiting room, hears his screams as they take him away, but allows herself to be diverted by her father.
With strength born of mortal terror, Wikus escapes and becomes the most hunted man in the world. Joining forces with Christopher, they pool their resources to get Wikus whole again, and Christopher and his little alien son back into a working spacecraft and into the void.
The aliens, nicknamed “prawns” in District 9, are determinedly uncuddly and disgusting. They are reminiscent of 1986’s “Predator”, though a little leaner and not quite as ferocious. But both are hugely ugly. Which makes it that much more of a surprise when you find tears in your eyes. What began as an obvious metaphor for persecution and inhumanity, got kicked downstairs from your head to your heart.
Somewhere in the 20 year hiatus between first contact and the present, humans and their unwelcome guests learn enough of each other’s language to communicate (with subtitles for those of us who don’t speak extraterrestrial). The clicks that permeated the alien language reminded me of another South African movie from 1980, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. The language of the native Nambian, San N!xau, featured such odd clicks. It was a wonderfully fascinating movie.
Wikus’s nightmare of being totally alone in unimaginable horror, was brought brilliantly into play. The sound of his frantic pecking on his cell phone to contact wife and friends seemed to add emphasis to his alienation. Running and crawling and hiding through incredible squalor and danger, his body evolving, sick and hurt in body and spirit, Wikus’s dilemma dramatically absorbs the viewer and bonds him to the character. Wikus’s relationship with his wife, Tania, who, like him, is timid and uncertain, grabs a piece of this film even though it is only periodically and briefly touched upon. In their few contacts, both fearful and pathetic, it is obvious that husband and wife love each other.
The fact that Wikus can grow in this savage world that has become as alien to him as the remotest planet, and that in his alienation he has found some of his humanity, makes this dark film resound with hope
District 9 is not ET. That being said to warn off family viewers, I very much appreciate the high recommendations from several of my readers. If left to my own devices, District 9 is not a movie I would have watched. Thank you, readers. I would have missed out on a very unusual, hard-hitting, and overall well-crafted movie. (Though they could have left out about 10,000 of the four-letter words and still have had plenty left over to be gritty).