Thursday, February 25, 2010

District Earth

District 9 (USA / New Zealand, 2009) directed by Neill Blomkamp, 1 hour, 52 minutes

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Achievement in Editing, Best Achievement in Visual Effects and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

I was completely thrown by this film expecting some goofy sci-fi flick. Instead I found an astute political thriller which utilizes the fear of aliens as a metaphor for race relations in Africa. The previews did no justice to the film which was superb. The feature film is based on a short film called Alive in Joburg (2005), also directed by Blomkamp, which you can view here.

I was trying to think how to describe it here … it’s like the book Black Like Me meets the blockbuster film The Transformers (like seriously).

As the film opens a large spacecraft hovers above Johannesburg, South Africa, stranded. When an exploratory team enters the ship they discover a group of over a million ailing extraterrestrial beings. They are an unnerving looking mix of anthropod and robot imbued with superhuman strength. They are brought to Earth and given shelter. Some prove to be destructive and behave in a criminal fashion. They are derogatorily labeled “prawns” (which they do resemble a bit) and the populace, both black and white citizens, start to turn against them. You get a nasty jolt listening to South Africans, of all races, complaining about the dirty, nasty criminal aliens who must be removed and/or destroyed.

Twenty years later, the government begins isolating the aliens in a camp called District 9. As I suspected while I was watching this it mirrors the not so distant events of 1966 when the South African government declared a certain region “whites only” and forcibly evacuated 60,000 black South Africans to an area labeled District Six (in Cape Flats). The viewer begins to realize with a sickening clarity that this is exactly how the white-led South African government saw the black South Africans – as aliens that had to be removed at any cost.

But we need not look so far away for historical metaphors – think of the herding of Indians into reservations in Canada and the U.S., the destruction of Africville in Nova Scotia or the internment of the Japanese-Canadians, including children born in Canada, during WWII. All these historical situations flash through your mind as you watch the aliens being beaten, arrested and dispersed. Brilliantly, Blomkamp visually evokes so many historical injustices that one immediately sides with the aliens.

The camp is heavily policed under the jurisdiction of the Multinational United (MNU) and soon turns into a slum. Another decision is made to relocate the almost two million aliens to District 10, 200km outside of Johannesburg. A private military outfit of whites and blacks is hired to do this. The realization that this “specieism” is universal amongst different races sinks in. We seem to need very little provocation to turn on “outsiders”.

Wikus van de Merwe (played effectively by Sharlto Copley), son-in-law of the head of the MNU, is appointed to lead the relocation with the serving of eviction notices to the aliens. At first, Wikus comes off as a mild-mannerd fool just following orders and not fully understanding the implications of what he is doing. He even resembles (intentionally?) a young Hitler with his silly haircut and goofy little black mustache.

The process is brutal and violent with threats made to take away children and jail those who refuse to evacuate. Aliens are beaten, killed, threatened, anything to make them move.

In the shack of one of the aliens, known as Christopher Johnson, who has a small child and is resisting evacuation, Wikus seizes a container of mysterious fluid, stored in a small canister, with which he accidentally sprays himself. Wikus quickly sickens and when his arm is injured during an altercation he begins to notice a series of frightening symptoms: his nose starts to ooze out a black substance, he starts to lose his fingernails, and his arm appears to be rotting and transforming into something inhuman.

When he is taken to a hospital, they find that his left forearm has mutated into an alien appendage simialr to the "prawns". He is immediately seized by MNU and experimented on. They determine that Wikus can now operate alien weaponry due to his “mutating DNA” and their intention is to vivisect Wikus before he fully transforms into an alien. Wilkus is shocked to see the experimentation on aliens (eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ medical experimentation with Jews during WWII).

Wikus escapes and the MNU spreads lies to the media claiming Wikus has had sexual contact with aliens, causing him to be infected and start to become an alien (thus disguising the true source of his contamination). His wife deserts him and he becomes a fugitive. The sorrow on Wikus' face when he realizes what he has become: a dreaded alien, despised by all, with no hope of aid or sympathy from other humans!

Rumors spread in the black community that consuming alien flesh will invest them with the superior physical properties of the aliens so dead aliens become a valuable commodity.

Seeking refuge Wikus returns to Christopher's shack and Christopher reveals that the fluid which contaminated Wilkus would have allowed Christopher to reactivate the now dormant mothership which still hovers above Johannesburg. Christopher has been secretly developing an aircraft that will deliver him to the mothership. He also says that he would then be able to transform Wikus back to his human form. They decide to try and steal back the canister together.

Wikus tries to buy weapons from a local Nigerian gang to aid their effort. Their warlord, a paralyzed and filthy tyrant named Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa), tries to seize Wikus and plans to severe his alien arm and eat it to enhance his own physical powers (and the ability to operate alien weaponry). Wikus narrowly escapes with a cache of weapons. (Note: Last September 2009, the Nigerian government banned District 9 for its "poor portrayal" of  Nigerians.)

Against all odds, they retrieve the canister (of course they do - this is an action film!) and head back to District 9. Sickened by the experimentation he has seen at MNU, Christopher tells Wikus that he wants to assist other aliens before curing Wilkus which would take three years. In a panic, Wikus knocks Christopher unconscious (so much for species solidarity) and starts up the command module that will take him to the mothership with the fluid. Hit by a MNU missile, it crashes.

MNU forces take Wikus and Christopher prisoners, but the warlord Obesandjo's gang ambushes the MNU forces and the gang seizes Wikus. From inside the downed command module, Johnson's son activates the mothership and an alien mechanized battle suit which Wikus takes control of and tries to flee, battling the MNU forces. Wikus, seeing Venter (played at top veliocity by David James like an evil, racist skinhead on rampage), the head of the police unit, trying to kill Christopher Wikus then rescues Christopher rather than escaping himself.

Promising Wikus that he will return, Christopher activates the command module towards the mothership while Wikus fends off MNU forces. This being an action movie, he manages to kill them all off except for Venter but the other aliens, in a surge of brotherly alien cooperation, manage to finish Venter off too in a satsifying, if bloody, denouement.

The transformation from human to alien is almost complete and Wilkus disappears … Speculation flares about his whereabouts. Did he leave Earth? Is he plotting his revenge against the government? Did he die? MNU's illegal experiments are exposed and the aliens are successfully moved to District 10 without incident where they begin to flourish.

In the last few shots, Wikus's wife, a melancholic Tania, finds a metal flower on her doorstep, which she hopes is proof that Wikus is still alive. An alien is pictured seen creating a flower out of metal in a scrapyard. Fade to black …

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