A number of websites have begun to herald a change in the science fiction genre recently, with the recent releases of Moon and District 9 earlier this summer. I was a huge fan of Moon - I thought that it was an absolutely fantastic film, one that captured the essence of the entire genre in wonderful fashion. However, District 9 is a worthy companion for Moon this summer.
Where Moon was quiet, sterile and patient, District 9 is much of the opposite. Taking place sometime around the present, the world has lived with the presence of an alien race on the planet for nearly two decades, when a massive alien ship appears over South Africa. Inside is millions of insectoid aliens, sick, dying and weakened, who are transported down to the surface, where they are first put into temporary shelters until a suitable place can be found for them. This never happens, so a slum of sorts is formed, District 9.
When the story picks up, tensions have risen in the last twenty years, so the aliens (referred to as Prawns) are being relocated to a new home - District 10. A private security company, Multi-National United, seems to have been placed in charge of their protection and keeping, and is working on evicting the aliens to their new home. An MNU employee, Wikus van der Merwe, portrayed by actor Sharlto Copley, is promoted to command the field units in charge of relocating the aliens. During the course of the day, Wikus is sprayed with a fluid by mistake, which begins a process of mutations that blends human and prawn DNA. Thus begins a nightmare for Wikus, who is in turn hunted by Nigerian gangsters and MNU security forces, who both want to study him in order to utilize the alien's weapons.
The film is shot in a very unconventional manner, partially handheld camera work, security cameras, news footage, which gives the entire film a very raw and rapid feel throughout, which really suits the tone and style of the film, and gives it a unique look and feel. The director, Neill Blomkamp, is a first time-director for a film of this scale, although he was initially attached to the now-defunct Halo film (and I think that he would be the perfect director for the project, when it comes back).
Another element that really succeeds from this film is the portrayal of the aliens. For once, aliens are truly alien, not just humans with a different appearance. The Prawns are insectoids, with a vastly different understanding of society, and the differences in cultural norms is what seems to drive much of the conflict - different values, such as property and personal possession seem to be relatively unknown elements to the aliens, and this leads to incidents. Their awareness of the surrounding events seems to be limited as well, with some exceptions, which makes them very easy to take advantage of, as MNU seems wont to do. The aliens here aren't saviors, superior or anything like that, they're just alien.
In a similarity with Moon, a big storyline with the film is Multinational United, the security firm that has more corporate motives that surpass what is ethical or moral. In Moon, the company would just clone its worker, Sam Bell. In this film, they go a step further, experimenting with Prawns to attempt to utilize their energy weapons and technology. When Wikus is transformed, one executive notes that his one body will be worth billions to the company, and they go about vivisecting him before he escapes. Corporate greed and corruption seems to be an especially powerful theme these days, with companies such as Enron, Blackwater and bailed out banks still making the news.
But what really makes the film is Wikus. He is as unconventional a main character as I've ever seen. When we first see him, he is a small, quiet man being interviewed by an unseen camera man. He stumbles over his words, fiddles with objects and is easily distractible, and seems as surprised as everyone else in the room when it is announced that he will be in charge of the field operations of the mission. He reminds me of one of the characters from Monty Python, a clueless husband who doesn't realize that his beautiful wife is having sex with the marriage counselor in the same room while having a meeting. He is, essentially a mouse in a much larger world. This is evidently seen when he comes across one of the special operations teams, and butts heads with its leader, who shoves him out of the way.
With his accident, there is an emotional, as well as a physical and physiological change within him. As he is infected with the fluid that transforms him (and thus making him a target), Wikus is forced to go on the run and go against everything that he's known. While in a position of authority over the Prawns, he is essentially xenophobic, condescending and racist towards the aliens, but without any real intent - he operates as he always has, as he's always known. His dismissal of the aliens is casual, because that's what's expected of him. During and after his physical transformation, Wikus is thrust into a role that he never asked for, and never wanted. Chased by members of the criminal underworld and his own company, he seeks refuge in the only place that becomes available to him - District 9. He allys himself with the scientist who had the fluid in the first place, who, as it turns out, is attempting to leave the planet, and the fluid was a necessary component of his ship. The story progresses logically from here - faced with this need, the two pair up and liberate the fluid from MNU, and the action picks up.
Wikus's story is not necessarily the singular purpose of the film. Throughout, there is a much darker, and highly relevant theme of racism that really puts the film on the map. In the opening of the film, there is a sequence of events that turns the public tide against the aliens. All too often, the presence of extra-terrestrials visiting humanity have a dramatic effect - they are either invading, or they are here for humanity's rescue. In this instance, they are neither, and because of this, they are not wanted, by anyone. One person in the film says that if they were from a different country, it might be different, but they were from another world. In essence, this is an immigration issue of very different proportions, but an immigration issue none-the-less, and it is fascinating that this film came out of South Africa, which has so recently dealt with apartheid. Around the world, this film can come to represent the plight of immigrants. I can see people in Palestine, South Africa, the American southwest and numerous other places around the world relating to this sort of film, or at least gleaning some message from it.
I'm at a loss to see how this film was made for only $30 million dollars. It carries itself with a much more sophisticated and good looking appearance, from the complicated CGI of the aliens to the action scenes. This has the feel of a much larger movie, and I honestly hope that this film, along with Moon, will be the start of a much bigger trend towards more original science fiction on a smaller budget. What Blomkamp has done is put together a superior movie, blending the best in character development, overall message and unconventional storytelling that really makes District 9 a tribute to the genre. Like Moon, it takes common themes and turns them on their heads, creating a different movie, and because of that, we have a film that will no doubt be looked upon as a fantastic addition to Science Fiction.