By Missak Artinian
I think it would only be fair of me to preface this review of Neil Blomkamp’s “District 9” with a honest confession: I am about as much of a sci-fi nut as I am good looking. For those who don’t personally know me, let’s just say that, on a scale that measures attractiveness, I fall somewhere above the alien race that inhabits District 9 and a little underneath Seth Rogan before he lost weight.
Joking aside, my point remains. I am a fan-boy of many, many things: science fiction not being one of them. You will never find me wearing a Captain Picard costume at the midnight showing of the latest “Star Trek” movie. A gray beard and a wizard’s hat at a “Lord of the Rings” convention? Been there, done that. Bald head and a red jumpsuit? Not on your life.
Now that’s not to say that I’m prejudiced against the genre, at least not to the degree that the humans that live in District 9 are toward the “prawn.” These arthropod-like alien beings are subjected to the tyranny and unjust treatment of the human race, who collectively agree to evict and relocate the “prawn” from their shanty, segregated ghetto communities into what seem like tented concentration camps.
Indeed, as I’m sure you’ll come to understand, I’m not prejudiced against science fiction at all. I would never forcefully displace the rich and extensive genre away from its rightful home, which is among the high ranks of such favorite genres as mystery, romance, westerns, fantasy, and my personal favorite, comedy.
My reputation as a film connoisseur, and indeed a critic, would lose all credibility if I didn’t acknowledge the contributions that the following gems have made to film: “Blade Runner,” “Terminator 2,” “The Matrix,” the original “Star Wars” trilogy and, in my view, the king of them all, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
What do all the aforementioned films have in common? Granted, they all fall under the umbrella of science fiction, but there is another, more important similarity. They are all great films, period. They are so because they probe and dissect thought-perplexing concepts like artificial intelligence, evolution, religion, and existentialism in unique and unexpected ways through narrative and, especially in science fiction, through special effects.
“District 9” is no different.
The film interestingly begins in a mock-documentary style that establishes the setting, the characters and the fictional history surrounding Johannesburg, South Africa, with the same shaky cinematography that moviegoers will find reminiscent of 2008’s “Cloverfield.” In the first 20 or so minutes, we get a good sense of what’s going on through a series of interviews with important characters, newsreels and anecdotes.
We also meet Wikus Van De Merwe, who works for Multinational United, which is a private military contractor. When Merwe is promoted to manage the relocation process, he personally visits the ghettos (with backup, of course) and knocks on doors, politely asking the “prawn” to agree and accept the terms of relocation by signing a contract. The many “prawns” who oppose these terms are treated with force.
As the plot thickens and the suspense escalates, Merwe confiscates a mysterious alien tube and is then exposed to the tube’s contents. I won’t spoil what happens, but I’ll just say that Merwe’s promotion was perhaps more than what he bargained for.
It’s also important to note that the film’s setting in South Africa is no accident. Exploring themes of segregation, xenophobia and isolation, the social and racial parallels between “District 9” and the real world are as implicit as they are explicit. The title of the movie alludes to District Six, an inner-city residential area in Cape Town, Africa where over 60,000 of the city’s inhabitants were forcefully relocated in mass by the Apartheid regime.
At this point, only a few questions remain: does “District 9” deserve to be categorized with the likes of science-fiction gems like “Blade Runner,” “The Matrix,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey?” Do the complex themes and narrative-style in “District 9” perplex our minds and delight us in unique and unexpected ways? Is “District 9” the kind of film that crosses genre-lines, the kind of film that everyone should see, even if you’ve convinced yourself that you don’ t particularly enjoy science fiction films? Yes, yes, and yes.