A decade after its release, we’re taking a look at that innovative little number District 9. The unique sci-fi action film doubles up as social commentary about apartheid.
Directed by South African born Canadian Neill Blomkamp, it also features the breakout performance of actor Sharlto Copley.
In 1982, the giant spaceship you see in the above clip arrives out of the blue and hovers above Johannesburg in South Africa.
After total silence from the thing, an investigation team heads up and finds a million aliens suffering from malnourishment.
They’re brought down to Earth and settled in camps, but after decades these develop into shanty towns – the locals have more than had enough of the “prawns”, as they call them.
Cut to the present day and we have Multinational United (MNU), some rich company full of the usual bunch of greedy tossers.
The CEO promotes bumbling son-in-law Wikus van de Merwe (Copley) to a surprising senior position – an on-the-spot decision to judge his ability to handle moving the aliens to a brand new camp.
This proves rather difficult as a lot of the “prawns” are a bit on the capricious side of things.
As soon as the MNU agents arrive there are incidents – an arm loss situation – whilst van de Merwe attempts to coerce the aliens into signing documents that get them out of the current camp.
In part, he uses cat food to facilitate the process. For some reason, the aliens have a real fondness for the stuff and will sign anything if they get a free can.
During the human’s rampant inspection of the alien slums, the jabbering van de Merwe accidentally infects himself with a strange liquid.
That’s all in the shack of “Christopher”, a genius alien who is trying to get his species home.
After this, he waves it off as a non-issue and the hapless, ever-cheerful van de Merwe returns to MNU after a (sort of) successful mission.
However, before he even reaches head office he suffers from a disturbing physical decline. His nose bleeds black blood, he’s dizzy, and his fingernails drop off.
As with David Cronenberg’s body horror The Fly (1986), our anti-hero is about to head into an almighty transformation.
Unluckily for Wikus van de Merwe, his physical decline does mean he’s now able to interact with some of the alien’s weapons.
And his father-in-law begins to exploit him to test out the alien’s technology at MNU – hitherto any of that, humans couldn’t use the guns due to mismatching DNA.
At this point, the film’s themes really come to the fore – racism, xenophobia, and an exploration of the happenings of apartheid in South Africa.
But there’s also an element of animal rights activism here.
Deep in MNU’s headquarters, van de Merwe (himself now a prisoner) sees “prawns” butchered and mistreated in the name of big business.
Horrified by this, our anti-hero suddenly comes good – as a viewer, we’re able to sympathise with his plight.
He refuses to shoot the alien. He is disgusted by what he sees within MNU. In his panic and outrage, he makes a break for it and flees humanity – into District 9 he plunges.
And it’s there he hits troubles due to the antics of warring human tribes.
But in teaming up with the prawn “Christopher” back in District 9, there is at least a chance for redemption.
The pair hatch a plan to restore some form of equilibrium – with van de Merwe hoping the aliens can restore his humanity.
Production & Legacy
With Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings directorial fame) producing, it did mean District 9 received extra attention at its release.
And it kind of came out of the blue. In 2009 we had no idea this thing even existed – eventually picking it up on DVD late in the year – as James Cameron’s Avatar stole all the headlines that year.
Whilst Cameron’s film was all about the 3D spectacle, District 9 is more subtle. There are moments of total grandiosity and madness, but it’s clearly a social commentary on apartheid.
You can even add speciesism into the list of themes it explores. The humans treat the aliens very badly. They cluelessly attempt to control them – it’s an uneasy relationship the two species maintain.
But it’s also innovative due to its location. With its Johannesburg setting, it’s a million miles away from the likes of Independence Day (1996).
And then, of course, there’s the excellence of the South African accent.
And the film’s star was a total unknown. Sharlto Copley is a friend of director Neill Blomkamp – during the late 1990s and early 2000s the former supplied the latter with equipment to fuel his directorial career.
Blomkamp paid Copley back with the lead role for District 9 – his first acting credit!
And Copley is brilliant as the bumbling bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe. At once unlikable, endearing, and pitiable. He really drives the film – all the CGI stuff is great, but without a convincing Wikus you don’t have a fully engaging story.
Thankfully (despite the influence of Avatar), District 9 was a smash hit. From a budget of $30 million, it went on to rake back some $210.8 million worldwide.
As an independent production, that’s pretty incredible. It was even nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture of the Year.
Yet despite all that success, and expectation from a legion of new fans, a much sought after follow-up has failed to emerge. Hmmmm…
Although District 9 is open-ended at its conclusion, and it was a success at the box office, we’re still waiting on a sequel.
Blomkamp is busy with various other projects but, apparently, is toying with the idea for District 10. And it seems Copley is all up for it as well.
Copley is only 45 now and Blomkamp is only 39. So there’s really no reason why, despite a decade long delay, we won’t see another entry into the series.
There was a seven-year gap between Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). So why not have a 2009 – whenever type gap and create another winning sci-fi series?
We believe it deserves more than one outing. It’s an incomplete story with lots more big business, social satire, racist, xenophobic, and speciesist themes to explore. Let’s hope it all comes good.