To my knowledge there is no creative rule etched in stone decreeing aliens landing on Earth must snatch our bodies, destroy our most iconic landmarks or pilfer our precious natural resources. Hollywood never got the memo as studios have churned out one alien invasion plot after another like a record stuck on the rut of an overplayed song.
Enter young South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, well on his way towards Halo becoming his first feature film directing gig under the wing of Peter Jackson when the project was unceremoniously canned by its multiple studio distributors and funders for financial concerns. Fed up with Hollywood’s business acuity, Jackson immediately set Blomkamp loose to create his own privately funded science fiction story, District 9, based Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg. And it was to be completed far, far away from the influences of Hollywood decision makers.
One step into the world of District 9 reveals a beautifully disgusting refuge wasteland where over a million 7-foot tall aliens, derogatorily nicknamed “Prawns” for resembling walking grasshoppers with wiggly worm mustaches, have become a burden on mankind. Without leadership or the means to move their massive spaceship away from hovering above Johannesburg, they live in squalor, illegally interact with humans and resort to crime for the necessities in life like cat food. Why they love cat food is anyone’s guess. But they do, and trade their powerful weapons to warlords who cannot even fire them for a handful of cans.
Blomkamp paints the Prawn’s plight and District 9 refuge camp with gritty realness not unlike how Ron Moore approached rebooting Battlestar Galactica. Though the Prawn design makes them unable to emote through facial expressions, you feel their suffering and frustration when the MNU, an organization that polices the Prawns, comes to serve 24-hour notice evictions in an attempt to move the Prawn into a more segregated and controlled camp. As irony would have it, the only humanity on display in these nonchalant house calls comes from those without an ounce of human in their body.
Leading the eviction operation is MNU desk jockey Wikus, a deeply flawed man who treats the Prawn like the scourge of the Earth even after meeting an intellectually advanced one with a son. He is the antithesis of a conventional hero, someone you disgust as his self-centered motivations drive him to find a cure after he accidentally infects himself with an alien substance altering his DNA and giving him the ability to use alien weaponry. In a nod to The Fly, it is only when Wikus is physically the furthest from human that he breaks down and embraces humanity and you’ll be on pins and needles waiting for it to happen.
Newcomer Sharlto Copley successfully adlibs most of Wikus’ dialogue to add authenticity to the film’s visual style that also incorporates documentary and hand-held camera shots. Visual effects including the CGI Prawn and their impressive weaponry put to use in the third act are not only incredibly lifelike but compliment scenes rather than mug for the camera. Even when Blomkamp comes closet to Hollywood as Wikus pilots a Prawn mech robot in a massive shoot-em-up against warlords and the MNU in a sequence, he manages to film the mayhem in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching from behind a wall as opposed to being spoon fed the best shots only. The visuals are so impressive that strings of minor plot holes are quickly forgiven then forgotten.
Maybe the sight of alien weaponry exploding MNU soldiers in all kinds of awesomely grotesque means is a glimpse into the Halo that might have been. Chalk up another memo that Hollywood never got. When Peter Jackson backs a filmmaker he knows what he’s doing; Neill Blomkamp’s unconventional and thoroughly entertaining District 9 included.
– Dan Bradley