Using human-to-alien relations, as a metaphor for human-to-human relations is nothing new. H.G. Wells first introduced the concept when he wrote War of the Worlds; in this book aliens do onto Earth as Europeans did unto Africa. For its time the book was revolutionary and it truly did change they way people views Europe’s role in history. More than 100 years later things have changed; no one is going to see District 9 and think much differently about apartheid in South Africa, most people wont even see the most obviously blatant parallels. For most District 9 will simply be another Sci-Fi action flick. Unfortunately this undermined District 9’s potential to the point the film does not know whether it is a serious metaphor about alien refugees in South Africa or if it is another Sci-Fi action flick done in a pseudo-documentary style.
The first half of the movie is the more serious one; it lags a bit, so those in the audience with an attentive disorder (not uncommon nowadays) will have to endure with it for about an hour. This half is delivered as a documentary. We are given some of the back-story on why aliens are living in Johannesburg, the reactions and opinions of some of Johannesburg’s citizens, and certain facts delivered by “experts”. We learn that they ran out of fuel, are looking for a way back home, and that we, puny humans, have not learened to tap into their technology. The aliens, referred to as prawns, are living in District 9, which is pretty much a massive shanty town; the government of South Africa has decided to relocate them to a camp further away from the human population as their presence has caused dissent amongst the residents of Johanesburg. Heading this relocation program is Wikus (pronounced Vikus) Van Der Merwe. The documentary follows Wikus as he plans, explains, and leads the relocation process.
The second half involves your usual action flick formula involving a McGuffin most in the audience care little for (in this case it is a tube with some liquid of miraculous properties), an evil father in law, some alien-human camaraderie, medical experiments, weapon dealings, a cute baby alien, token black thugs, aliens blowing up humans, humans blowing up aliens, humans blowing up humans and a bad-ass robot blowing up everyone. It also includes the phrases; “Don't give up on me,baby”, and “Think of your son”. Also while in the first half, it appeared that humans and prawns could not understand each other’s language at all by the second half most prawns are fluent in English and Afrikaans and most humans seem capable of understanding prawnish clicks.
Although disjointed, the film delivers some solid entertainment; unless you suffer from a serious attention disorder and are incapable of sitting through a 40 minute first act. And the special effects are astonishing; every alien (they are all CG) looks unbelievably real. The photography is also on the spot both on the documentary reels and the action sequences. For a feature-length directorial debut it will certainly place Neill Blomkamp in the map and under the patronage of Peter Jackson I will not be surprised if the South African director becomes a common name in movie conversations.
I have always thought that in order to seriously converse and examine the harsh realities of life one must try to do it without sugar-coating it and using metaphors to do so. Africa’s history is tragic enough to turn it into mere entertainment for the masses. Doing so only hinders any solution attempt. It would have been much more interesting to see a film that confronts the reality of what was the real life situation of District 6 (that is the compound in which thousands of Africans were forced to live in during apartheid) like Gomorrah confronted the reality of organized crime in Naples. Nevertheless District 9 is the most thoughtful of this summer’s blockbusters.