Johannesburg, South Africa, a large spaceship hovers above the city where it has stood immobile for some twenty years. The original owners of the ship, a stranded alien race were rescued and “cared” for by the South African government due to the glare of International interest in the story.
Local residents blame the aliens for all of their ills and the alien population is segregated into “District 9”, a violent slum where they are hidden from the rest of the population. Rampant repression and inequality, inevitably leading to scavenging for food, goods & ultimately terrorist attacks on the general population. “No Alien” signs proliferate and wild racism against the aliens is endemic.
Director Neill Blonkamp, a Peter Jackson protege, presents a fantastical story in a very ordinary and down to earth setting, modern day Johannesburg. Some areas of filming and overhead shots, are clearly not sets and makes the film all the more poignant.
The film starts in quasi documentary style, almost a South African “The Office” and initially you wonder whether you have wandered into the right multiplex screen.
Newcomer Sharlton Copley plays Wikus Van De Merwe the paper pusher entrusted by the MNU (Multi Nations United) to relocate the “inconvenient” aliens, or “Prawns”, to another camp, some two hundred kilometres away. Out of sight and most definitely, out of mind.
Starting in somewhat comedic fashion, Wikus is seen attempting to serve eviction notices on seven foot tall multi tentacled, rather disgusting aliens. The aliens initially seem to only enjoy eating tyres, cat food and generally misbehaving themselves. The aliens are encouraged and partly aided by the not so underground black market, led by the colourful and very violent “Nigerians”.
When the whole relocation plan starts to turn to custard, Wikus accidentally sprays himself with some alien fuel and starts to gradually turn into a “Prawn”. Slowly, having been rejected by his own race, tortured and hounded, he seeks refuge in “District 9”, the very area he was attempting to relocate.
If all this seems a bit silly and fantastical that’s because it is, but it works stupendously well.
For audiences brought up on American accents dominating our screen, to hear South Africans swearing is rather refreshing. Many different ways to say swear words, coming to a playground near you soon.
None of the movie would work without a lead character that you care about. Copley is simply excellent, conveying comedic timing at the start but leading to outright terror, isolation and ultimately revenge as the movie plays out. He carries you with him, on his own journey into personal hell. This is especially impressive bearing in mind he would have been acting to nothing or a motion captured actor most of the time. It appears the actors are improvising some of the dialogue, which provides a very “real” feel to a lot of the exchanges.
The special effects are not showy, perhaps by intention or due to budget constraints. They remain effective and realistic and are a seamless part of the movie.
There is a lot of blood and guts but presented almost in a over the top comic way, this seems in keeping with the hyper reality created. The attack on the headquarters is a stand out and puts many larger budgeted movies to shame.
Certainly Sharlton is a real find, similar in appearance to Steve Carrell and not dissimilar in the comedic moments but on the evidence presented here, clearly capable of some great acting. He will next be seen in the latest big screen re-imagining of the “A-Team”, due on our screens soon.
Of course there are deeper parallels to be found throughout the movie, the Aliens perhaps are not what they first seem and over time we come to care about what happens to them. The “Government” and assorted agencies are painted as pantomime villains, persecuting, torturing and generally being evil at every opportunity. The UN might want to question why all their distinctive white vehicles have suddenly gone missing.
There is little to dislike, there are large guns, explosions and everyone gets their comeuppance, all garnished with a side order of comments regarding race, politics and “we are all alike really”, if you care to look. Your average 14 year may not care, they will be too busy cheering every exploding head but it’s there if you choose to look.
Wildy inventive and in a period where almost every movie is a sequel, prequel or re imagining, a very refreshing change.
Violent, intense, comic and thoughtful in equal degrees, highly recommended.