“Everyone Deserves Equality”. This is the message of this Prawn Rights program, designed to raise awareness about the plight of the Prawns, the quality of life that they have in Johannesburg and the discrimination that they are faced with every day. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi drama is a loosely-disguised story of Apartheid, and all the nastiness that went with it. Except Blomkamp was clever. Instead of just making a film about Apartheid he changed the focus to aliens, and added in a strangely plausible story about a man who is forced to live just like them.
The story goes that in 1982 a large mothership contained a race of starved and bedraggled aliens, known as the Prawns, arrived in Johannesburg. 28 years later the warmth to which the Prawns was received has faded to nothingness, and the Prawns were relocated to District 9, a ghetto where the race live in squalor and are exploited. In 2010, Multi-National United is contracted to move all of the Prawns from this ghetto into District 10, a sector located miles away from Johannesburg that is similar to a concetration camp. The operation was headed by Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) but when he is infected by a mysterious alien liquid his only hope is to rely on the help of his two new Prawn friends, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son.
The film is incredibly sympathetic to the Prawns, treating them like human beings and showing them more respect than most of the people involved with Multi-National United. It is terrible to see the conditions in which the Prawns live and the way that they are bullied by humans every day. Perhaps most revealing is the idea that all they want to do is go home, and indeed Christopher’s whole aim in life is to return to his home planet and rescue his fellow aliens from the squalor that they now live. The humans are portrayed as brutal, and the main military core of Multi-National United love nothing better than to threaten the Prawns, and even murder them for laughs. In this way it’s pretty gratifying to see these same men get blown to smithereens by the alien technology that Wikus is eventually able to command.
But the power and historical importance of the film isn’t the only factor that makes District 9 so compelling. Sharlto Copley’s performance as Wikus is incredible: he moves from being a slightly oddball pushover to a completely frustrated and ultimately moralistic character as he gradually, over seventy four hours, accepts his fate. At first you dislike him for being so dedicated to his undesriable job of evicting the aliens, but eventually you warm to the fact that he knows he has been mistaken. In Wikus’ tag-team with Christpopher the pair even manage to be unintentionally funny: I laughed at some of the comments made by the pair, but also had the sneaking suspicion that I probably shouldn’t. But perhaps Blomkamp bravely wasn’t afraid to place humour into what is ultimately a serious drama.
The CGI technology used to bring the Prawns to life is also amazingly impressive. You have to consider that in the same year Avatar was released at a cost of $237m. It only took Blomkamp and his producer Peter Jackson $30m to create this incredibly convincing and realistic effect, not just for bringing the Prawns to life but also for all the explosions, makeup, mechanical effects and sets used while creating the movie. Put into perspective, the pair were working on a shoestring. But didn’t it work well? It is a perfect representation of how you don’t have to spend a lot to get a lot back.
In addition to this, the movie makes use of three very distinct filmic styles. Sociologists and entomologists are interviewed in-between the action to give their comments on the alien behaviour. Wikus’ team film the eviction process through the use of cheap-looking handheld cameras while the second half of the movie is captured entirely using more recognisable standard film cameras, reminding us that this is a movie, not a documentary, as the first half would have you believe. The editing is impreccable, always knowing when to give you new information of to use certain footage. It all helps to form this particular mindset of how immoral Multi-National United are. And in the end, the message against discrimination is what Blomkamp wants us to take away from watching the movie.
Verdict: An incredibly impressive sci-fi that moves from a realistic documentary style to a thrilling action climax. But on the whole this is a very powerful story about prejudice mixed with a believable “what if” style plot that changes your view of events. It will keep you riveted, make you think and if you don’t feel sorry for Wikus by the end then, quite frankly, you don’t have a heart.