The only good alien
(District 9, Neill Blomkamp, USA/New Zealand/Canada/South Africa, 2009, 112 min)
If every film was like the exposition in District 9, think of how much faster we’d get to the point. From the first shaky clips of nerdy Afrikaner bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) in the low-ceilinged office of Blackwater-ish mercenaries MNU to him standing in front of a rundown Johannesburg township, knocking on the dirtiest of shanty doors with eviction notice in hand, it’s like the first couple bars of a Motown song.
Bam. Some years ago an alien ship came to a standstill over South Africa, carrying sick and malnourished prawn-like creatures. Into District 9 they go. Bam. They turn out to be a major nuisance to all the Jo’burgers, who swiftly put up a ton of “no non-humans allowed” signs and talk to television crews about how they just want the prawns to get out. Cue MNU and massive prawn eviction to the faraway District 10. Bam bam bam.
It helps that the director, Neill Blomkamp, has done most scenes in documentary style, either handheld footage, talking heads or clips from surveillance cameras, all with a sprinkle of official-looking dates and times. Sure, it’s a township of strange aliens with strange DNA and strange clicking noises whistling past their sticky gills, but we’ve seen the civil unrest drill on TV before. As well as the apartheid, of course, so no need to overdo the analogy.
Instead, we get lots of exploding heads and gory limbs cascading down on Wikus, who happily joins in the gallows humour and sets fire to a houseful of alien foetuses. “Here, you can keep that as a souvenir of your first abortion, ay,” he tells a co-worker and hands him the bloody remains of an alien reproductive device.
At first, Wikus is all good cheer and jaunty South African inflections, and the film never quite loses that initial sense of crazed detachment, even when Sharlto Copley’s lines increasingly rely on desperate variations of “fuck”. Wholly improvised lines, apparently, and realistic in a clumsy and unmemorable style that you’ll never hear from Kevin Spacey. It made me want to finish Wikus’ sentences every time he gasped at yet another “fokkin'” alien.
Part of District 9‘s charm is that you can’t quite put a genre to it. There’s the depressing skeleton of dystopian sci-fi that we saw in Children of Men, but Blomkamp is never anywhere near that film’s level of utter hopelessness. Potentially pathos-filled scenes are cut short – Wikus’ wife (played by newcomer Vanessa Haywood) only gets a few seconds of screen time to betray her husband before he scrambles on through the garbage-strewn township streets.
And there’s too much comic relief, some of it probably unintentional, like the Nigerian cat-food salesman-cum-warlord, Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa), who takes his cue from cult leader Mola Ram in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Not to mention that the second half of District 9 is an out and out action film complete with a Transformer-style robot and, of course, the beautiful Independence Day mothership looming in a pastel haze, waiting for take-off.
Blomkamp goes to work on all the conventions as though they were just waiting to be hammered together and thrown down the stairs. Towards the end, District 9 slows down, picking up more and more weapons and a few clichées along the way, but that’s like the Motown fade-out. You’ll push pause just before the end and then jump back to those first few bars.