I came to it cold. Prompted by remembering that someone had said it was a must see film, and finding an Odeon guest pass tucked in beside my Oyster Card, I sat down in screen 3 last night totally unprepared for what unfolded during the next two hours.
As the opening titles flick across the screen, it’s initially comforting that Peter Jackson is in charge. South Africa, Johannesburg. It’ll be a story about hardship in a township, contrasted with wild animals and state brutality, I thought. Not a million miles away from the actual plot ... though completely missing the alien connection.
An alien ship appeared over Johannesburg, and remained there, hovering above the city. Curiosity got the better of them, and the military flew up, broke in, and discovered a ship full of malnourished aliens. They rescued them, ferrying them down by helicopter to the ground.
Hospitality extended to building a camp in the city’s District 9 slum to house the newcomers, fencing and barbed wire to keep them separate. Gangly, with crustacean-like exoskeleton and facial fronds, the aliens were nicknamed “prawns”.
And then it’s as if apartheid is happening all over again. Except as Peter Bradshaw points out in the Guardian’s review:
But just as no one in EastEnders watches EastEnders, no one notices the apartheid parallel here and gasps: “Hah ah-roneeck!”
Dehumanisation. Segregation. Prejudice. Community tension. A black market underworld emerges. Nigerians enter District 9 and trade meat and cat food for alien firearms. (No surprise that District 9 is banned from cinemas in Nigeria!) Though there’s some kind of biological trigger that means humans can’t fire the powerful weaponry.
After twenty years of squalor and deprivation, the city decides to move the alien refuge camp out of town. Eviction notices will be served on the million or so dwellings in District 9, giving 24 hours warning of the move outside the city boundaries to District 10 - more like a concentration camp with its tiny tents and zero facilities. IMDB reveals unexpected parallels between this allegory and real life:
“All the shacks in District 9 were actual shacks that exists in a section of Johannesburg which were to be evacuated and the residents moved to better government housing, paralleling the events in the film. Also paralleling, the residents had not actually been moved out before filming began. The only shack that was created solely for filming was Christopher Johnson's shack.”
An unlikely leader, Wikus Van De Merwe is put in charge of the process. Accompanied by the Blackwater-like private corporate militia and expecting trouble, Wikus and his co-workers go door to door getting alien scribbles on the eviction notices. Trouble flares. Arms dumps, contraband, resistance. Searching for weapons, Wikus unintentionally inhales a strange substance and that’s when everything changes for him and the film’s plot crunches into top gear.
No longer the top dog, and on the run, cinema goers get a chance to figure out their stance on bio-ethics while Wikus reconsiders his own relationship with the refuge aliens. He needs their help, and they need him. Family bonds, trust, misinformation, aggression: it’s all flying around in the maelstrom of inter-planetary hostility.
“I will fix you , but first I must fix my people”
states an alien - with the perhaps unlikely name of Christopher Johnson - who’s been working on a cunning plan since they arrived.
It’s a fascinating film, fast paced, and you never quite know what will happen next. It has violence - at times like a gruesome video game as blood and gore splats on the camera lens. There is an enormous amount of CGI, but you’ll hardly notice as the unspeakable horror unfolds.
Man’s inhumanity to man extends to man’s inhumanity to the very aliens they chose to rescue. Replace the aliens with another human ethnic community, and you could be transported to the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the South Africa I heard about on the radio over breakfast as I got ready for school ... or I’m ashamed to say, maybe even Northern Ireland.
If you can stomach it, go and see this film. (Though I seem to be late to the party and it may no longer be runnign in local cinemas.) And then vow to never allow yourself or others around you perpetrate hatred and segregation. A fine film to see on the evening that Nick Griffin took his seat on the BBC One Question Time panel.