The basic plot is pretty simple. An alien spaceship comes to halt in the sky above Johannesburg. It doesn’t move for a long time so the government cuts into the ship and finds a whole host of aliens who appear to be starving. They are ferried down to the surface where a refugee camp is set up. When the story proper picks up the aliens have been in the camp, which has now taken on the form of one of the worlds worst ghettos, for some 20 years. The government of South Africa has contracted a company called Multi-National United (a private paramilatary firm, a la Blackwater) to clear the aliens (derogatorily called Prawns) out of the current camp in Johannesburg to a concentration camp hundreds of kilometers away. The main character is Wikas van de Merwe, an MNU employee who is heading up the team serving eviction notice to the Prawns. Things obviously get more complicated from there, but I’ll let you go watch the actual film.
First of all the direction is superb, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better use of CG in a film. Additionally, Sharlto Copley, who plays van de Merwe, is excellent and carries some very powerful scenes. He also provides a performance that convincingly captures every moment along a pretty extended arc of character development.
Some of the “bad guys” are a little too typical, and there are elements of the plot that might have felt formulaic in another movie. The thing is, those two issues are very easy to ignore in this film, because it is so conceptually original. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an alien movie, or a sci-fi movie, anything like this. The whole thing just felt so completely real in a way that sci-fi and fantasy never quite do.
The one point of difficulty thematically is something that seems to afflict an awful lot of movies that explore otherness. It’s the human being (read White Male) who saves the alien (read African, Asian, Woman, insert subaltern here). I’m never quite sure what to do with this problem. These kinds of films are trying to challenge oppression, and are particularly interested in creating a sense of filial love in the oppressor for the oppressed. District 9 does this very well by humanizing characters who are, quite literally, not human. And it’s also necessary to humanize van de Merwe, who represents the oppressor, in order that we the audience might identify with him. And it’s even necessary for the oppressor to be the main character because that’s who we as the audience must identify with most closely. We are the oppressors, so we must see our oppression. But how can you encourage an audience, particularly in Western culture, to identify with a completely non-heroic character?
Even taking this issue into account District 9 is a brilliant piece of work that everyone should go see. If this film doesn’t garner at least a whole host of award nominations, to say nothing of actual awards, it will just serve as further evidence that Hollywood is filled with dilettantes and tools.