District 9 (R)
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This 2009 film is based on the director, Neill Blomkamp's 2006 short, Alive in Joburg. The film, as is common with science fiction, is allegorical. On the surface it's about Man's inhumanity to aliens (as well as to one human), but actually it symbolizes real events during South Africa's apartheid era. Anyway... in 1982, a huge spaceship appears over Johannesburg, and hovers there, motionless. Eventually people cut their way into the ship, and find there are over a million malnourished aliens aboard, who seem unable to take care of themselves or control their own ship. (The movie never explains how the ship came to be there or what happened to the aliens to put them in their current state. One thing we do eventually learn is that a piece of the ship, or a drop ship, fell from the mothership, and no one's been able to find it.) A section of Johannesburg, designated "District 9," is set up for the aliens to live in, and the district becomes a slum. We never learn what the aliens are actually called, though people take to calling them "Prawns," because of their resemblance to prawns (though many film-goers would just say they look like insects), and also use the term as a sort of racial slur, considering the aliens to be "bottom feeders."
The movie is done partially in documentary format. There is old video footage from when the ship first arrived, but most of the movie is set over 20 years later, when after years of riots and tension between the Prawns and the citizens of Johannesburg, the South African government hires a private military company called Multinational United (MNU) to relocate the Prawns to a new facility a couple hundred miles away. One executive at the company, Piet Smit, puts his son-in-law, Wikus van de Merwe, in charge of the operation. We see Wikus now as the focus of the documentary, and he kind of reminds me of Michael Scott from "The Office" (though I've only really watched the first episode of that series, so I could be off base). Anyway, Wikus is like a mid-level bureaucrat or something. He seems eager to do a good job and to be worthy of this promotion, though mostly he seems kind of ineffectual. Cameras follow him from his office to District 9, where he and his team (including armed guards led by Koobus Venter, who clearly doesn't like Wikus) go to serve eviction notices to the Prawns. (I want to note that while humans and Prawns each speak their own language, each race understands what the other is saying, which kind of reminds me of Chewbacca from Star Wars. Except that there are subtitles for what the Prawns say, so viewers can understand. I also found myself wondering if the Prawns' language, which includes a lot of clicking, is meant to resemble Khoisan languages.) Anyway, while Wikus's team is doing their job, we get to see what life is like for the Prawns, as well as some humans who live in District 9, mainly Nigerian criminals led an arms dealer named Obesandjo. It's important to note that while both Obesandjo's gang and legitimate groups like MNU have obtained Prawn weapons over the years, they can't use them because they're engineered to respond only to Prawn physiology.
I should also mention there's a controversy because Nigerians have been offended by their people being depicted as criminals and cannibals, which I think is ridiculous. The same kind of argument has been made over countless shows and movies over the years, depicting specific characters in various negative ways, and people tend to act like that means these characters are representative of an entire group, be it about race, religion, nationality, etc. From my perspective, it's not about an entire nationality, it's about the specific characters themselves. I don't think writers should be forced to either never show characters in a negative light or else if they do, stop the narrative in some way that's totally unnecessary to the story being told, to show other characters from that group in a positive light, just for the sake of balance. In my opinion, every human being on the planet should realize that every demographic on the planet includes both good and bad people, and therefore not worry about bad ones being shown in some movie. They should just assume that everyone who sees the movie will assume these characters are not representative of their entire demographic. Just look at the time I've wasted, interrupting the narrative of my review to address this issue.
Anyway, I think some of the stuff in the early part of the movie is kind of amusing... the whole idea of serving eviction notices to aliens is funny in how it's such a familiar, commonplace kind of thing that happens on Earth all the time, just not with aliens. It doesn't even have to be looked at as a South African thing, but probably people from any country could identify, especially America... the way the various Prawns responded also seemed so typically human, or I might say sort of ghetto or "white trash" or the kind of thing you'd see on bottom-feeding reality shows that I wouldn't watch, myself (but which are unavoidable while channel surfing). But while the juxtaposition of the familiar and the alien was cute in its way, there was also plenty of violence from both sides, mostly with little actual provocation. So it's clearly serious business. And while Wikus himself seems in some ways to be a mild-mannered fish out of water, he also seems to understand the situation in District 9, and to know what he's doing; he gets giddy over locating hidden weapon stashes, and can happily order attrocities against Prawns (which he probably shouldn't be doing on camera, since he's violating their legal rights, to say the least).
Meanwhile, there is a Prawn called Christopher Johnson (I guess they all have human names, though I'm not sure exactly how they got these names, and I don't think I ever heard any other Prawns called by name) who has spent the last 20 years working with a friend, and now with his own young son, scavenging for Prawn technology to collect a fluid they need for some purpose. Wikus ends up finding the cylinder of fluid, and confiscating it. In the process, he gets sprayed with some of the fluid, and subsequently becomes sick, though he tries to go on with his work. Eventually the exposure to the fluid has a more drastic effect on Wikus, the nature of which I don't want to reveal. But I will say it leads to MNU turning against him, and his becoming a fugitive, and having to enter into an uneasy partnership with Christopher, in order to retrieve the fluid from MNU headquarters. The movie gets progressively more violent, and Wikus becomes a sort of bad-ass action hero, which was an interesting transformation. He also becomes a tragic figure, and more sympathetic to the Prawns, and desperate to return to his old life and his wife, Tania (whose father, Piet, is lying to both her and the press about Wikus).
Anyway. At some point in the documentary, the sense is conveyed that Wikus did something very bad, though it's a while before we find out what it was... and that it wasn't at all the way it was made to seem. But I also found the format of the movie a bit strange, because the documentary seemed early on to be about the attempt to relocate the Prawns- that had to have been the point of filming Wikus at first- and in the end it seemed to be the same documentary, just using the early footage for a different purpose than we first supposed. It also used footage as I said from when the aliens first arrived decades ago, as well as various other video sources, and then there were also scenes that couldn't possibly be part of the documentary, both because there could have been no cameras present and because if there were, the public would know the truth instead of believing lies. What really troubled me though was I didn't notice any segue between the different parts of the documentary and the parts that were just straightforward movie. Anyway, in the end we are left with several questions about the future, which I'd kind of like to see addressed someday. But if there's not a sequel, I suppose they won't be. And actually, I kind of feel like a sequel would be a bad idea, because in a way it would probably negate the film's allegorical nature and just become a straight-up sci-fi action movie.
In any event... it was a pretty cool movie on every level: humor, drama, action, as well as social commentary. I did want to say... in the past I had a different way of rating movies in my reviews, or rather a secondary method along with the current one. These days I basically just rate my own subjective appreciation of a movie, but I also used to rate my idea of a movie's quality, which might be equivalent to my enjoyment of it or it might be higher or lower than my enjoyment of it. Though I don't do that anymore, I do sometimes feel the need to mention this discrepancy, and I'd definitely say this is one of the movies where I believe the quality to be higher than my enjoyment. Not that I didn't enjoy it, because I very much did, but still... I'm not sure if it's something I feel the need to see again. I definitely am very glad to have seen it at least once, though. And maybe I will watch it again, years from now....