Saturday, February 6, 2010

District 9: a film

One of the most unusual, and perhaps unforgettable, SF films I've seen recently is District 9. I hadn't heard much about the film, but it was recommended to me as one I would enjoy. I checked with the public library and was surprised to discover that it had purchased 62 copies (that suggests someone thought it was going to be popular) and what was more surprising was that, in spite of the relatively large number of copies, the waiting list was over 100 when I signed on. I just checked a few minutes ago, and there are now 180 people on the waiting list. Apparently a large number of people had heard about the film.

I am surprised that it is so popular, for it doesn't strike me as being a film that would attract many people. It is a dark, gritty film; it is not pretty. It is shot, in part, in documentary style. Many of the scenes are shot as though it was a real-time documentary film. This gives it a sense of immediacy and suggests that this is really happening, right now--unbelievable as it may seem--you are seeing it as it happens.

The Plot: an alien space ship suddenly appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. After waiting for something to happen, the humans go up, cut their way into the ship, and find several thousand aliens in very bad shape: most are starving, and many are ill. The aliens are brought down to an area on the outskirts of Johannesburg and eventually allowed to stay. This area is designated District 9, and it becomes a restricted area--For Aliens Only--a ghetto actually. The aliens--later nicknamed Prawns--could leave the district but had to return. They could live nowhere else. This happens several decades before the events of the film.

Or, to put it in today's headlines, these are interstellar "boat people" who have been confined to a refugee camp for several decades now. Generally, "boat people" leave their homes in order to find a better place to live. If so, what has happened to induce these to leave their home planet.

Now, the powers-that-be decide that it is too dangerous and inflammatory to have many thousands of aliens living in such close proximity to a large human area, so they decide to set up another reservation several hundred miles away. Wikus Van De Merwe is appointed to head the relocation of the aliens. The film begins at this point.

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and the resolution of the film.

Van De Merwe, played superbly by Sharlto Copley, comes across as an eager, innocent executive who appears to have been handed a task beyond his capabilities. In fact, I wondered if he hadn't been selected because a scapegoat would be needed if and when the relocation of tens of thousands of aliens turned into a disaster.

Van De Merwe clearly shared the prejudices of the majority of people. He saw his job as moving the aliens, regardless of what they thought or wanted. Part of his job was to get the aliens to sign a form in which they agreed to the relocation. That would make it "legal" and satisfy various civil rights groups. At one point, he is seen explaining to those whose job it is to get the signatures that, even if an alien disagrees and pushes the form away, just touching the form constituted an agreement and any smudge left on the form was to be interpreted as a signature.

His attitude begins to change when he comes into contact with alien biotechnology that reacts with his genetic structure, and he begins to change into an alien. The aliens have a number of very powerful weapons that humans can't use because the weapons are tuned to the aliens' DNA. At the hospital, those studying Van De Merwe discover that his DNA has been affected and that he can now fire the alien weapons. He now is wanted by his corporate employers, various governments, and certain criminal elements who have large numbers of the alien weapons but can't use them.

He eventually escapes from the hospital and heads for District 9, with various interested parties in pursuit. At this point, he begins to interact with the aliens and eventually helps one of them recover a container of fuel for the ship which they had been laboriously manufacturing for decades. However, he only agrees to help when the alien says that it could restore Van De Merwe to his human form. At this point, the pace of the film has moved into high gear with lots of action, culminating in the final sequence when Van De Merwe climbs into a personal combat device and battles the groups interested in capturing him. The alien and its son escape and promise to return in three years for Van De Merwe.

As I watched the film, I was reminded of other SF films and books by some scenes or incidents. It isn't that they copied them, but there were echoes. For example, the sudden appearance of the ship over Johannesburg, followed by no further activity by the aliens, reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End in which numerous alien ships appeared, one over each of the major cities on Earth. For six days, everybody watched and waited and wondered until finally the aliens made contact.

And, Van De Merwe's slow transformation into an alien certainly brings to mind a number of SF films from the 50s in which someone turns into an alien, usually beginning with a hand, just as in this film. We watch as his arm gradually alters into an alien limb while the "victim" desperately seeks a cure.

The vehicles used by Van De Merwe's employers are constructed of a white plastic material which looks exactly like the white armor worn by the Empire's troopers in Star Wars.

In the final scene of the movie, a completely transformed and monstrous Van De Merwe gazes at what appears to be a small flower, and I'm reminded of a similar scene (at least I think I remember this) from at least one film version of Frankenstein in which the monster, at one point, does something very similar--an echo of Beauty and the Beast.

I can only wonder about the choice of Johannesburg, South Africa, for the setting of this film, considering its past history of apartheid. Is Johannesburg's past significant here?

Overall Rating: probably one of the best SF films of the decade, if not one of the best films, regardless of genre, of the decade.


  1. Fred,

    Saw it on the plane coming back from Dublin and thought it compelling then. I would need to see it in a more suitable setting, but what I could derive from it in that venue supports all you say here.

    What is particularly nice is the way it transcends the genre and draws you into a story about what it means to be human and humane.

    A side note--I don't know if you're aware of it, but you are nearly impossible to add to blogger's blog list. I've tried several times now and can't quite figure out why it doesn't go through. And as a result, I visit here far less frequently than I would like to. My poor leaking memory has to be jogged every now and again.



  2. Steven,

    I'd be interested in reading what you have to say after having viewed _District 9_ in a more suitable way.

    I didn't have any trouble linking up with your blog. So far, no one else has said anything about any problems. What kind of error messages are you getting?

  3. Steven,

    I just checked your blog and my blog is listed under Literary and Book blogs, about 3 days back.

  4. For those with high speed internet access, you can watch District 9 on YouTube here:

    I agree with Steven. The movie does transcend the genre. You don't have to be a SF fan to like this movie. It would appeal to those who liked Dances With Wolves, for instance. ( Kind of a similar theme.) It's certainly something different, which is refreshing in this time of movie remakes and comic book adaptations. What really drew me in were the characters, even more than the technology or the special effects. I think it's well worth seeing.

  5. Dear Fred,

    Ah, so that is why it spun its wheels--rather than informing you were already in the list it just hangs there. Thank you. I'll go look again--there are so many.



  6. Cheryl,

    I haven't seen _Dances with Wolves_, so I didn't see the similarity in themes.

    I haven't seen _Avatar_ either, but I have seen some commentary that suggests a similarity also with _Dances with Wolves_. The _Avatar_ commentary also suggested a hidden message which seems to divide reviewers along political lines.

    The overall theme behind D9, I think, relates to the problems of refugees: problems for the refugees and for the host country.

    It's almost as if the film's creators read a story about problems caused by the massive number of refugees today and got the idea of putting it into an SF universe--interstellar boat people or refugees on an alien planet.

    It's a great film, one which I will view again.