District 9 talks a big game, but ultimately is just another alien movie
Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is a dangerous man. Of course, as with most dangerous everymen, none of his acquaintances suspect the banality of evil that lurks under his veneer of desperate affability. A Borat-gone-upper management, he has been Peter Principled up the corporate ladder of South African-based Multi-National United. MNU is one of those corporate octopuses that indulge in a variety of enterprises, including weapons development. It is suspected that Wikus’ marriage to the daughter of the company’s CEO had something to do with his latest promotion, to field the relocation of a refugee camp of illegal aliens to another patch of dirt out of the eyesight of the citizens of Johannesburg.
Oh… the illegal aliens? They really are aliens. Bug-ugly critters that arrived in a giant mothership that parked over Joburg 20 years before. A ghetto ship packed with confused drones dumped on Earth’s porch like a box of malnourished puppies. It’s a very big box … swarming with about a million of them. Crustacean in appearance, the refugees are affectionately dubbed “prawns” by the humans, who helpfully relocate them from the squalid conditions of their space raft and move them into District 9, a barbed-wire-embraced field of tin-roofed shanties.
But after 20 years, the citizenry of Joburg has had enough of the depreciation of property values, and MNU steps in to clean up the mess. As head of the relocation project, Wikus is dispatched into District 9 to serve an eviction notice. And so begins a very, very bad day for Wikus …
And so we are introduced to one of the more craven anti-heroes of recent film. Wikus is a man driven by ineffectual self-interest, capable of casual evilness in his stupidity. Pulling the plug on an alien spawn, he jokes he’s performing an abortion. He gets it without getting it … the aliens may look like crawdads, but they’re still sentient.
Here, South African expat Neill Blomkamp has crafted a clever allegorical sci-fi action vehicle. He’s a protégé of producer Peter Jackson, so one would think that with his feature debut he would show more influence from his mentor. But Blomkamp seems more enraptured with the work of Paul Verhoeven (most notably Starship Troopers and the satire of multinational corporations that drives RoboCop). It’s not always successful, as the documentary framework it starts off in reduces the movement of the first part of the film to a bunch of talking heads.
By cloaking itself as a parable about apartheid, the film seems deeper than it really is. But the allegory is never explored below the surface level and is discarded in the final stretch, as the film essentially turns into a first-person shooter filled with explosions and flying body parts. But as an action vehicle, ultimately District 9 does deliver the goods