This one has been sitting on my shelf for far too long so I thought it was about time I sat down and watched it.
*Although there’s no explicit spoilers in here, if you haven’t yet seen the film you may want to read with caution*
The thing that struck me most about District 9 is how real it feels. Which is no mean feat for a movie about aliens. The documentary style gives a realistic setting to begin with, but it’s the characterisation that drives the message home. Director Neill Blomkamp uses unfamiliar actors so as not to fall into that trap of not being able to separate the famous face from the character, and in Sharlto Copley, who plays our leading man Wikus he has found the perfect everyman.
Our first introduction to Wikus paints him as good-natured, if a little naive and bumbling, and the initial interviews seem more focussed on the early years of the alien settlement; but a subtle tone shift starts to build a sense of unease, as Wikus becomes more frequently referred to in past tense. The fact that I found myself thinking, “oh no, what’s going to happen to him?” is a testament to how quickly Blomkamp grabs hold of the audience and makes them sympathise with his man.
The transformation of Wikus, aside from the physical, is wonderfully subtle and yet at the same time very striking. He goes from a very gentle man to one who is all too familiar with violence. We are exposed to increasingly gory images along with him, so that we almost become desensitised in a similar way. Again the documentary style aides this kind of symbiotic relationship we have with the character, as we feel more connected, although as the film progresses the trope becomes less prominent.
It’s not enough for us to just care about Wikus though, we need to care about the aliens too. Blomkamp could have taken the easy road by making them easier on the eye or more humanoid in appearance, but that would have undermined the theme of prejudice and fear that is what makes this movie more than just another alien flick.
The so-called “prawns” aren’t pretty to look at. Their language is unintelligible and not subtitled until the very end when both the audience and Wikus has come to understand them better. There is no point during the film where you feel you are looking at CGI monsters, and despite the lack of comprehensible communication the early scenes of family life juxtaposed against the “eviction” process are clearly readable.
Of course it’s no secret that this film isn’t just about aliens. The setting in Johannesburg has obvious implications, and there is a clear message about racism as well as our attitudes towards immigration. The aliens are essentially refugees, being held against their will at the same time as being told to go home, and the insights into the inhumanity (if that is the right word) of how they are treated become increasingly worrying, hitting a deeper note when we see that neglect forced upon Wikus
It’s easy to see why District 9 had such a big impact. It’s unlike any other science fiction movie I’ve seen in that it plays out like a history not a fantasy. It manages to be emotional in an entirely raw and uncoerced way which can at times make it hard to watch. It may have taken me a while to finally see it, but I’m glad I have.