District 9 is a sci-fi, alien film were the alien race, fugees in this case, are not the aggressors. They are segregated from the population of Johannesburg, South Africa in an area designated District 9 by barricade, military personnel, and a government organization known as Multi-National United (MNU).
District 9, based on the director’s short film entitled Alive in Joburg, is immediately ahead of the cinematic curve because the main protagonists are identifiable and the viewer can empathize, in some way, with them. There is MNU field operative Wikus van der Merwe (Sharito Copley), a happy-go-lucky, affable, ordinary joe, “not to smart”, who is very much in love with his wife Tania van der Merwe (Vanessa Haywood). The other protagonist, whom the viewer may or may not give a second thought about initially because he is seen as just another alien, referred to as Prawns in this film and classically evil looking, is Christopher Johnson. Christopher is a father far more intelligent and leadership-ready than his brethren, yet plays it down, unlike his technologically-savvy son. So the audience is given the everyman, the unlikely hero, and the father who, eventually through the malice of MNU corporate greed, become unwitting partners and comrades.
The fact that the most demonic, bipedial creatures in District 9 are more humane than the actual humans e.g. MNU corporate scientists, upper executives, and a Nigerian gang lead by Obesandjo 7 (Eugene Khumbanyina), is what gives the film substance and is an admonishment for the barbarism humans bestow upon each other for financial advancement, gains in territory, and power in all its forms. Even Wikus can be counted amongst this cadre of the inhuman as he initially does not value Prawn life that much either, evident when he orders Prawn egg sacks burned that contained unborn Prawn infants. When he, in turn, is treated like a sub-species by his own kind, including his father-in-law and former MNU friends after his infection, Wikus begins to value Prawn life as much as his own. This is especially true after he is forced to kill a helpless and defenseless Prawn merely to test the effectiveness of an acquired Prawn hand weapon.
Utilizing litigious weapons as ammunition, the illegal moving of Prawns from where they currently reside in District 9 to District 10 will immediately make some think of the concentration camps of World War 2. This political and military action really mirrors the actual events of a forced removal of the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town (District 6)’s over 60,000 inhabitants by the empowered Apartheid Regime in South Africa in 1966. This segment of District 9 illuminates for the uninformed a part of South African history the country probably would like omitted and forgotten.
District 9 is far more violent than the viewer may expect but at the same time does not exploit the fact like in From Dusk till Dawn, Hostel II, Watchmen, et cetera. People get splattered for reasons anyone in Wikus’ eventual position could understand. It’s justified and continuously provoked by the villainous actions of those that want to exploit Wiku’s condition and by others that simply want him dead. The more Wikus is chased and tormented, the more the viewer identifies with him because they realize that they could easily be in his position. Wikus is not the typical action hero (muscle bound, an ex-soldier, et cetera). On more than one occasion it’s obvious that he is not the smartest man in the room and in fact may be well below the 50th percentile. Since most people are not soldiers or Brainiac 5, this serves as another identifying factor, sauce for the goose.
After witnessing the jocular special effects and CGI in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, those found in District 9 were flabbergasting. It was astonishing to see that a movie that cost $30 million dollars could be produced with completely more realistic and detailed special effects than a flag ship franchise starter that cost $175 Million. Where In Valen’s Name did all that money go? To cast salaries? The viewer can not help but be impressed with the level of detail put into the CGI of The Prawn, far better than Jar Jar Binks, Smeagol, and just as good as King Kong. The Prawn seem like they are actually standing there with the other real actors on screen.
Then there is the unlikely friendship that develops onscreen between Wikus and Christopher. They eventually need each others’ assistance and an unlikely bond begins forming between them out of that need. At one point that need disappears entirely and it is just one friend helping out another. Seeing that develop as District 9 floated between increasing levels of onscreen violence (love those Prawn weapons and that Battle Mech, which is what the Marauder battle suits should have looked like in Starship Troopers 3: Marauder), sentimentality, and fatherhood, it becomes clear that District 9, like The Host, is unlike many of the monster, sci-fi alien films produced for the big screen these days. As with the moment during Wikus’ alien infection, during the second and third acts, the elements of District 9 “are in balance” and they never go out of balance again until the credits roll.
Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a sci-fi film with substance, much like Moon but even more so. District 9 has heart in subtle ways, in a look or a glance from a CGI creature, similar to those found in a Hayao Miyazaki film or Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. It is these small details, not stuff blowing up or ridiculous plot contrivances, that make District 9 a sci-fi film that stands out from the pack.