Science fiction is prominent in today’s media, in films, on TV, and in video games. And a large percentage of it comes in the form of adaptations, sequels, and the now ubiquitous gritty reboot. The most successful franchise crossing all those lines at once is J.J. Abrams’ reimagining of the Star Trek universe. But as enjoyable as these repurposed properties are, it’s always refreshing to come across something unique and different. And District 9 is definitely something unique in the world of science fiction.
Adapted from his 2005 short film Alive in Joburg, director Neill Blomkamp brought this story to the big screen in 2009. In the context of this world, aliens appeared above Johannesburg in 1982 as refugees. They are confined to a government internment camp outside the city where they stay for the next few decades, living in squalor. The government hires a private military organization, aka Multinational United, to forcibly relocate the camp and its unwilling tenants. The story focuses on Wilkus van de Merwe played by Sharlto Copley, the company man sent to run the move.
The setting and story are based on the events that occurred in District Six in Cape Town. During the 1970s, approximately 60,000 residents were forcibly removed and relocated. The reprehensible magic of the apartheid era strikes again.
What makes this film brilliant is the truth fictional events draw on from reality. The treatment of the “prawns” and their forcible confinement in an internment camp is a blatant statement on the treatment of South African residents on the wrong side of the color line during the apartheid era. This social dynamic is the fuel for the story, the core of which is MNU’s handling of the prawns which includes torturous scientific experiments. And like all good science fiction, District 9 keeps its big toe firmly dipped in reality.
District 9 also makes a splash because of its choice of venue. The reality is that most science fiction films set on Earth end up focused on the United States no matter what time period they’re in. Lest we forget how important the contributions of the USA were in Independence Day and how the rest of the world waited with bated breath for their masterful plan of stopping the invading alien hordes with an Apple. While it’s not to say that a science fiction film is somehow not enjoyable or good because it’s set in the US, it is certainly refreshing to watch one that has little or nothing to do with North America. This is a different kind of science fiction film set in a different part of the world.
That being said, it still has more than its fair share of action, which at times seems counter intuitive to the nature of the plot. But Blomkamp does a more than effective job of blending the action with the weighty subject of the story to create an intriguing film.
And a lot of that has to do with Sharlto Copley. While he served as the producer of the short film, District 9 was his first time acting in a feature film. He plays the part of Wilkus brilliantly. He’s wilfully ignorant of his own xenophobic tendencies, only coming remotely coming close to opening his eyes to the realities of the world around him when survival forces it. The arc of his character is executed perfectly.
Xenophobia. Racism. Segregation. Apartheid. These are the subjects addressed by District 9 in a weighty and poignant manner amongst the action and alien/government shootouts.