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District 9

Entry updated 14 January 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (2009). Peter Jackson presents in association with Tristar Pictures and Block/Hanson a WingNut Films production/with the assistance of the Department of Trade and Industry South Afirca. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Cast includes Jason Cope, Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood and David James. 112 minutes. Colour.

1983. Narrated backstory. A crewless interstellar ship is detected hovering over Johannesburg, packed with a million or more Alien refugees, who to human eyes resemble giant prawns, but who are rescued and housed, or rather confined, in a Johannesburg ghetto-like shantytown that becomes known as District 9. From this Jonbar Point an Alternate History evolves.

2010. In the very Near Future of a world thus changed by the presence of a million or so rapidly breeding alien refugees, Television "documentary" footage opens District 9, presenting a cod-history of the past decades and current situation through interviews and hand-held camera verité-style visuals. Through a clever documentary within the documentary we meet Wilkus van der Merwe (Copley), project leader for the private corporation Multi-National United (MNU), which has been tasked with the transfer of the two million prawns to the ostensibly more hygienic but in fact less attractive District 10, a full-blown detention centre 240 kilometres away. We learn inter alia that human interest in the prawns focuses on the advanced Technology, including Weapons, they have access to but do not use; unfortunately, these technologies only work through symbiotic interfaces with the alien Biology, an interface fatal to humans.

While attempting to evict an alien named Christopher (Cope), Wilkus is sprayed with a toxic fluid, sickens inside District 9, is "rescued" by MNU commandos led by Koobus Venter (James), and taken back to a medical lab where he proves to have been infected with prawn DNA. Wilkus escapes an attempt to vivisect him with anaesthesia, while at the same time continuing to grow a prawn-like arm which he can use to operate alien weaponry. Finding his way back to Christopher's extensive "shack", he discovers that Christopher has access to the mothership's command module. Christopher tells him the mothership can "cure" him before he entirely turns into a prawn, but discovers that MNU medical scientists are experimenting on his fellows, and from this point action sequences dominate the action, duly escalating as new weaponry from the mothership and elsewhere come into play. Wilkus himself gains control of a Mecha, but is ejected, badly wounded, from the body suit by the vengeful Venter. Eventually Christopher gains access to the mothership, promising to return within three years to cure Wilkus. MNU's Torture of captured aliens is exposed, once again through documentary-style footage, but the prawns are removed all the same to District 10.

Just as there are two Wilkus van de Merwes in District 9, District 9 is clearly two films. The complicatedly aspirational human Wilkus, whose motives are mixed and whose wife Tanie (Haywood) suffers unusually, becomes Wilkus the prawn-by-stages who gains in martial skills as his weapons escalate in power. A similar morphing is imposed on District 9, which began with a multi-faceted and seemingly very toughminded Satirical take on Homo sapiens in general and South Africa's racial history in particular (see Race in SF), then turned into an entirely predictable dodgem derby, with the whole of District 9 weaponized as if by magic, and boasting a Slingshot Ending whose function is not to motorize skywards Wilkus's existential quandary, but to hint at a sequel. Any initial sense that Wilkus's conspicuously more than skin-deep transformation might evoke questions as to the nature of Identity – a query that searingly shapes a more rigorous film like Under the Skin (2013) – is drowned out by the digressive CGI-enhanced Sci Fi clatter of second-unit wham-bam by numbers. The film won a Nebula (Ray Bradbury Award) for best dramatic presentation. An earlier attempt at its theme by Blomkamp was the short Alive in Joburg (2005). [JC]

see also: Seiun Award.


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