September 27, 2009

Warm, Fuzzy Feelings Get Trampled in 'District 9'

I think the era of cute, friendly aliens, a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial--is finally over.

Neill Blomkamp's District 9, a nightmarish, what-if vision of an Earth that treats its first visitors from outer space like rats carrying the plague, shows that our cynical, suspicious society could fashion a distinctly unpleasant welcome for extraterrestrials on first contact...sans charming hand signals and Francois Truffaut. District 9 presents a scenario in which alien refugees, arriving in a massive ship above Johannesburg, South Africa, at an unidentified date in the future, are shuttled into filthy refugee camps as the government decides what to do with them and derisively called "prawns"--a reference to their crustacean-like features. Enter scruffy, officious Wikus Van De Merwe (played magnificently by Sharlto Copley), a pencil-pusher charged with evicting these otherworldly visitors from their homes, a procedure he appears to do with relish until...

Well, I won't tell you. But it's worth noting that this film has a fish-out-of-water flavor reminiscent of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, mixed with the claustrophobic nastiness and bloody action of Aliens.

The most interesting aspect of District 9 is its political subtext--a hardly veiled-at-all comment on apartheid that is made more apparent when one considers the setting for the film: Johannesburg. The aliens themselves are presented as, well, aliens...with highly unusual and often disgusting predilections. (Eating rubber from tires, rummaging through garbage and unnecessarily wearing brassieres are among these extraterrestrials' favorite pastimes, apparently.) The fact that these visitors are so unappealing (especially considering their spiky appendages and aggressive behavior) makes the film so much more complex; the creatures, assumedly created with the help of New Zealand's WETA Workshop (the brains behind the special effects featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which District 9 co-producer Peter Jackson directed), are insect-like and dirty-looking, and speak a muttering, click-heavy language that constantly seems to suggest expressions such as "buzz off" no matter what the context.

So how can we feel for these creatures if, to paraphrase Dr. Zira in 1968's Planet of the Apes, they're "so damned ugly"?

There's the rub. These creatures are not E.T. But they are sentient, and the violence and humiliation they endure in District 9 is enough to make a viewer gasp--despite the fact that it's all (admittedly well done) makeup and CGI special effects. And that's the comment, I believe, Blomkamp is making about apartheid...or any other inhumane mistreatment levied against other people: Can one feel for another whom one doesn't understand and who represents an unfamiliar culture? Can the "other" be welcomed into society without being put down and discriminated against?

And could this be a likely scenario in case we ever achieve first contact?

It's a heady perception, and although the film at times degenerates into action-movie cliches and overly animated hand-held-camera wobbling, the subtext is a powerful one. Blomkamp's film has a lot of heart, and that's something much of the best science fiction has as well.

Not to mention green, creepy aliens. Eat your heart out, Close Encounters.


  1. Good comparisons to other films of the genre, and a fitting consensus to match. Warm and fuzzy feelings do indeed get thrown over the shoulder in this film, but the drama works. A sequel would be very intriguing...

  2. Thanks, LuckyCricket--I agree: A sequel would be most interesting. It's obvious that Blomkamp has a good idea of how to direct a thoughtful sci-fi flick...I'm curious about the prospect of a follow-up, though I suspect it might be "onward and upward" for this promising young director.