Tuesday, September 08, 2009

District 9

There's an essential thread to every great science fiction story - an emphasis on the fiction, rather than the science.

Which is where District 9, the bleak and dystopian vision of mankind's 'first contact' with extraterrestrials, succeeds beyond all expectations.

District 9 is set in an alternative version of our present, in which 'first contact' with aliens occurred three decades earlier - in a way nobody on Earth could have envisioned.

When aliens came to Earth, their mothership didn't drift to a halt above Washington D.C. or Brussels. Instead, the aliens landed above seemingly undeserving Johannesberg, South Africa.

Similarly, when these extraterrestrial visitors emerged, they didn't bring with them great technology or a message of peace from across the stars. Instead, they turned out to be a million-strong community of listless refugees who'd almost starved to death on their journey.

Reluctantly, the South African government took responsibility for these athropod-like aliens - ferrying them to a specially built 'camp' on the outskirts of Johannesberg known as 'District 9.'

When the film begins, thirty years after 'first contact', District 9 has descended into a crime-ridden slum and the alien population - known derogatorily as 'prawns' - have doubled in number, causing increasing friction with their human neighbours.

It's a setup that has clear parallels to the real world. The miserable shanty-town of District 9 will be familiar to anybody who's watched news reports on war zone refugees, or seen the way some Palestinians live on the border of Israel. The Guardian even published an article about how 12 million black South Africans live as miserable a real life as the aliens do a fictional one.

'District 9' sees Wikus van de Merwe, an employee of multinational corporation MNU, assigned to relocate the 'prawns' to a specially built camp some 200 miles outside of the borders of Jo'Burg.

Played brilliantly by South African actor Sharlto Copley, Wikus is an awkward and uninspiring bureaucrat thrust into a position of authority nobody else wanted.

It's a triumph of scriptwriting that Wikus' character comes across as sympathetic. He does a highly unsympathetic job and for the least likable of motivations, too - turning a blind eye to abuses not out of a callous nature or 'need to get the job done', but because he's so eager to please his employers and be well-liked by his colleagues.

In that respect, he reminded me of Ricky Gervais, playing the sycophantic boss man David Brent in the BBC sitcom 'The Office.'

Wikus' ambitions turn sour when he stumbles onto an alien scheme to send the 'prawns' back home - and he finds himself on the receiving end of MNU's callous and inhuman attentions.

It's thrilling, thought-provoking stuff - a very visceral, violent sci-fi movie that happens to be prodigiously intelligent as well. It's certainly the finest movie I've seen this year; taut, challenging and immensely satisfying.

If my example is anything to go by 'District 9' is a cinema experience you'll be talking about for days afterwards.

1 comment:

Luke S said...

Saw it Sunday. Really enjoyed it; I think it might take another watch to see if I rate it as highly as yourself-can't decide whether it was really great and needs another watch to appreciate it, or just good-but it's been on my mind a lot since, so that's gotta be a good sign.

Either way, I really enjoyed it (even though Wikus is almost cartoonishly clown-like for the first half hour, rendering him totally unbelievable for me, let alone him being put in charge, even if it is by the father-in-law (who is also INCREDIBLY over the top but unfortunately remains so for the entire film) but fortunately he turns it into a fantastic performance by the end, so I can forgive it.

It's definitely flawed (they can talk to the aliens, and have been doing so presumably for 20 years, yet still don't know why they came, or what went wrong?? They learned nothing about the most exciting culture the world has ever known?!) and massively derivative (Alien Nation plus The Fly plus an buddy movie where two partners don't like each other at first but blah blah blah) but as I say, very enjoyable. I don't know if I think it's QUITE that great yet though, but I'll letcha know after another watch :-)

PS Either way it's nice to see something INTERESTING on at the cinema for once...