District 9

3.5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: February 10, 2010
Allegorical overdose in need of an antidote

It’s been a truly spectacular year for big-budget films set in South Africa. If Invictus (cross-reference below) shows the power of patient belief, eventually, trumping unbridled power and social injustice, then District 9 opens the Pandora’s box of systemic human cruelty so wide that the notion of one step forward, twelve steps back can certainly be applied.

From director Neill Blomkamp’s (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Terri Tatchell) extra-creative vision, no social scourge is left untapped. For twenty years, nearly two million aliens (stigmatized as prawns due to their physical, non-human features) have been ghettoized in Johannesburg. Feeding off their illnesses and misery are Nigerian thugs (headed by the paralyzed but nonetheless bloodthirsty Mumbo, who believes he will be able to use the space travellers’ biologically linked weaponry for his own brutal agenda if he just chows down on their flesh). Their wide-ranging activities running the ever-lucrative black market include doling out canned cat food in exchange for cash or goods. The notion of the homeless eating meals only fit for animals rings through strong and clear. Having blacks as oppressors resonates eerily with Congo, Rwanda, and Somalia.

The main plot involves relocating the entire foreign population to a tent camp (a.k.a. refugee) far enough away from the burgeoning metropolis to be out-of-sight/out-of-mind. It falls to an army of contractors (Can you say Blackwater?) to do the heavy lifting, but first—in a deliberate irony that seems inspired by Chekov’s and Gogol’s pillories of the Russian civil service—all of the residents must sign their own eviction order.

Heading up the enforced civic-cleansing (manipulatively “promoted” to the position by his merciless father-in-law) is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley turns in a marvellously dynamic performance as he morphs from ambitious bureaucrat to defender of the downtrodden). Going door-to-door in a brave if somewhat foolish attempt to lead by example, the enthusiastic “boss” inadvertently stumbles onto the magical powers of a black liquid that, when enough is gathered, could fire up the overhead spaceship (floating calmly above for two decades with no power—where’s Scotty when needed?) and allow the unwanted visitors to return home. Alas, when the dark potion is splashed on humankind, a werewolf-like transformation begins its grim course. Full moons and sunlight have no affect here, but the sudden cravings for raw meat and Purina Friskies put a severe damper on family gatherings.

Not surprisingly, everyone wants, er, a piece, of Wikus: the mercenaries realize the potential for harvesting his body so as to make the alien weapons of fast destruction part of their own arsenal, the Nigerians view a helping of Wikus as the key to their version of Black Power and his beleaguered wife (Vanessa Haywood) wants the truth: is her husband’s deteriorating condition due to a “transgression” with a prawn, or has daddy been lying?

So most of the film is an extended chase scene; those with a taste for special/visual effects and body-part splatterings will be absolutely delighted with the colourful carnage that spills across the screen. The dramatic conceit of a covey of interviews (led most competently by Jason Cope as the chief correspondent) provides welcome variety and assists the pace.

Clinton Shorter’s original score is served up beautifully—notably the strings—by the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra (Adam Klemens, conductor). Everything is impressively captured, cut and put back together again thanks to Trent Opaloch’s deft cinematography and Julian Clarke’s savvy editing (and the legions of others in the credits who all contributed to the cinematic result).

While the ambitious narrative bites off far more than can be satisfactorily chewed and digested, the fantastic ride through what must be a completely fictional world (right?) is worth a look. And if the box office responds in kind, the seeds for the sequel have already been baldly planted—ready to harvest three years hence. JWR

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Director - Neill Blomkamp
Conductor - Adam Klemens
Cinematography - Trent Opaloch
Production Design - Philip Ivey
Editor - Julian Clarke
Original Music - Clinton Shorter
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