Alienation in South Africa: ‘District 9’ Reviewed

For a short period of time in 2005, insiders and hardcore fans were expecting the production of a big budget Halo movie. This prospect alone could have began another multi-million dollar summer movie franchise. The announcement of Peter Jackson’s involvement as a producer led many to imagine what a Weta Studios helmed depiction of Master Chief would look like. Guillermo del Toro was rumored to be a possible director and could have ultimately been a good fit. But Jackson soon surprised everyone, especially those at Microsoft, by announcing the director would be Neill Blomkamp, an unknown South African director who had yet to helm a full-length picture, let alone a potential blockbuster. To make a long and convoluted story short, the incarnation of a potential Halo movie fell apart and the production remains in development hell to this day. Test footage of a sort was put together in a short promotional film called Halo: Landfall, leaving fans to wonder what might have been. The only other real directorial effort Blomkamp had made at the time was another short film called Alive in Joburg—a mockumentary about aliens living in the slums of South Africa.

The concept behind 2006’s Alive in Joburg evolved into 2009’s District 9 with Peter Jackson still on board as a producer. Alive in Joburg‘s pseudo-documentary social commentary remained, but was expanded to include genre-changing action sequences and the most unlikely protagonist in a sci-fi drama. The premise of both Alive in Joburg and District 9 is that aliens land over Johannesburg in the late 80s and still reside there in the present. They have since garnered a class status among the lowest of the low as well as the resentment of most humans in the country. This class struggle and the aliens’ impoverished living situation greatly parallels social problems in South Africa, so much so that some of the aliens’ houses used on set were once actual South African homes.

The area that aliens are legally confined to, the titular District 9, is scheduled for destruction, so the aliens, referred to pejoratively as Prawns, are to be relocated to the more constricted District 10. The film’s unlikely hero, bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merve (Sharlto Copley), is tasked with going door to door in District 9 and serving relocation notices. The very first moment of the film shows Wikus trying awkwardly to clip a microphone to his shirt. The first time I watched District 9, I distinctly remember thinking how strange it was to open with this scene and predicting that this character would most likely be confined to a small comedic role.

In the middle of Wikus’ inspection of Prawn homes, he comes into contact with an alien fluid, the life-altering results of which slowly make themselves apparent throughout the course of the movie. This moment also breaks the movie away from its documentary premise, not being filmed in an interview or found footage format. The resulting battle for Wikus to keep hold of his humanity is surreal, violent, and disturbing. The graphic and detailed process by which his body slowly begins changing provides many moments of visceral horror. The alien weapons that he uses essentially turn people into blood filled water balloons. If Starship Troopers felt more like a David Cronenberg movie and had a touch of social commentary, it would essentially be District 9.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply