A breed apart

Fri, Sep 4, 2009, 01:00

Here’s a film to fill the heart with hope. Directed by a South African advertising whizz named Neill Blomkamp, District 9views ordinary human wretchedness through the metaphorical lens of an inconvenient alien visitation, writes DONALD CLARKE

More than 20 years after the beasties – carnivorous bipeds nicknamed “prawns” by human neighbours – arrived in the skies over Johannesburg, they are still being contained in a squalid shanty town on the outskirts of the city. Though the picture allows its deeply flawed protagonist a degree of redemption, it has virtually nothing positive to say about the collective instinct of the human species.

So, what’s all this about hope? Well, by raking in serious money on its US release and generating busy debate in that country’s cinema foyers, District 9has demonstrated that smaller, more intelligent genre films can still secure the attention of cinemagoers. Blomkamp’s debut feature, co-produced by canny talent-spotter Peter Jackson, has earned a box in the same thoroughbred stable as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Deadand The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Well done, sir.

Like Body Snatchers, District 9does not let its allegorical impulses get in the way of the core story. Beginning as a hybrid of mockumentary and drama, the picture invites academics and journalists to explain how a vast spaceship appeared in the South African sky during the mid-1980s. Still hanging over the city like a persistent, but nearly forgotten cloud, the vessel offers an entirely fresh icon for science fiction acolytes to worship; this is alien visitation as everyday inconvenience.

As the shanty town grows more disordered and Nigerian gangsters begin playing on the aliens’ weaknesses for cat food and gambling, a sinister entity named (somewhat clumsily) Multi-National United is entrusted with the task of moving the unwelcome guests to a more remote location. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a cowardly lickspittle married to the boss’s daughter, heads up the operation.

Things progress relatively smoothly until, clipboard in

hand, he encounters an alien

with the amusingly anglicised name of Christopher Johnson. It transpires that this stubborn prawn has a plan to facilitate his escape from the planet. The bureaucrat and the extra-terrestrial Edison lock horns, before, as MNU’s dastardly schemes are revealed, gaining a kind of prickly understanding.

Points are being made about the human animal’s suspicion of difference and, more specifically, about the continuing legacy of apartheid. But the subtexts

never threaten to overwhelm the noisy, panting action. Indeed, as the film progresses, one begins

to understand how the drawing

of such allegories actually encourages the audience’s emotional connection with the material. Any decent, liberally- minded person will have considered the wretchedness of

the human refugee’s status and, as a result, will feel more inclined to sympathise with the oppressed prawns. Far from being an overly worthy imposition, the metaphor actually offers the story added empathetic ballast.

Anyway, those still inclined to groan at Blomkamp’s good intentions will find plenty of bloody, squelchy mainstream thrills to divert them in the film’s highly satisfactory closing act. You want killer robots, ricocheting gun-fights and gruesome alien autopsies? They are all here. Utilising economical, but effective computer-generated effects, the film-makers have worked hard at sketching an alien culture – the humans have just about learned to understand the beasts’ clicky language – that intrigues the viewer, while leaving him or her eager for more anthropological detail.

In fact, the failure to engage more fully with the visitors’ society could be accounted as a flaw. Perhaps a few too many mysteries remain unaddressed as the credits spool. But, ending on a quasi-cliffhanger, District 9appears to point towards a series of sequels that should, for once, enhance one’s appreciation of the original.

What’s that you say? We said that about The Matrix? I thought we’d agreed to allow hope into our hearts.