Released: 4 September 2009
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriter: Neill Blomkamp, Teri Tatchell
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Robert Hobbs
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Running Time: 112 mins
Long anticipated, Neill Blomkamp’s full-length film that replaced Halo on his slate is finally with us, following an exhaustive marketing campaign spanning well over a year. Landing in Johannesburg 20 years ago, the Prawns are alien visitors who appear stranded due to a lack of fuel, and who end up settling on Earth in an internment camp, where they are constantly and ruthlessly exploited by everyone from gangsters through to a pseudo-governmental corporation, MNU. Wikus van der Merwe is an MNU operative who is assigned to clear the District 9 slum, but during his rounds he becomes infected with an alien virus and slowly begins transforming into a Prawn himself.
The parallels with Apartheid are clear, and it shouldn’t escape anyone that the Prawn language is deliberately reminiscent of Bantu dialects, with its series of vocal clicks. Likewise, District 9 is itself based on Cape Town’s real locale of District 6. However, anyone hoping for a science fiction-framed exploration of this will be disappointed. District 9 abandons its overt political allusions after half an hour, and becomes little more than a chase film. Van der Merwe is one of the most unsympathetic protagonists we’ve encountered in film this year, and as his transformation accelerates and he’s experimented on by his former employers, it’s hard to feel pity. In the same way, the film damages its own allegorical credence by subtitling several black characters’ perfectly audible dialogue.It’s a shame, as District 9 could truly have been a great film – all of the seeds were there in the story, the acting from Copley in his debut role is satisfying, and the CGI is nothing short of incredible. For a film that has the overall budget of an average Hollywood production’s marketing spend it’s a remarkable achievement.
Unfortunately, District 9’s fractured identity rears its ugly head in the last act, becoming a sci-fi shooter with a decidedly mixed ending, and whatever message it once had is weakened by the stress of the film being pulled consistently in different directions. For a prime example, see the cinéma vérité style employed extensively at the start, but later mixed in with traditional camera work randomly, lending a disengaging and unsettling feel to the film’s presentation rather than enhancing its verisimilitude.
District 9 will appeal to science-fiction fans, but ultimately disappoint those looking for a deeper exploration of contentious issues.