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District 9

Released 2009. Director: Neill Blomkamp

ALIENS HAVE BEEN LIVING AMONG HUMANS ON EARTH for over 20 years. In case you didn’t know, they have taken up residence in South Africa. In Soweto, Johannesburg, to be precise.

Seen through the lens of a handheld camera, District 9 starts off as a mock documentary. The camera crew is following a bureaucrat named Wikus van der Merwe from a private security firm as he leads his team to forcibly relocate the aliens, known derisively as prawns because of their appearance. We’re told the intergalactic immigrants have trouble integrating. They live in squalor. Their lives are characterised by crime and violence. They can’t learn to behave civilised like us. So they must be herded into a concentration camp for the good of all of us.

District 9 fires an unsubtle political statement on the now defunct apartheid system. The parallels are painfully obvious. Then before anyone realises it’s happened, the rug has been pulled from under our feet. Like some shape-shifting extra-terrestrial life-form, the movie morphs into a different kind of monster.

If you want to pinpoint the exact moment, it’s when the comic and jovial Wikus merrily shows to the camera a vial he’s just found in a slum dwelling – and the vial bursts, black liquid exploding all over his face and body. Science fiction weighs in hard, with action and drama muscling into a tight, breathless pursuit as Wikus discovers he’s changing into the very species he’s working against. Horrified, Wikus seeks help, only to uncover an agenda to murder aliens and harvest their DNA to operate their biologically-controlled arsenal of super-weapons. Wikus has suddenly become a priceless commodity to be exploited by those in power.

Expanded from the 2005 short film Alive in Joburg, District 9 is eye-popping, mind-blowing and thought-stirring. Forget the overhyped but less satisfying Avatar released this same year. This is sci-fi set in the present day, not in some distant future of new technology and an unfamiliar landscape. It’s down and dirty, not merely in the physical sense of slums and dumps but the ugly side of humanity.

What is human? Is Wikus human? Do we treat him as a person, or one of the aliens? What is inhumane, extracting body parts to develop defense mechanism? Does the movie bring to mind the way some governments treat refugees? District 9 is not set in some imaginary, far-flung planet but right here, right now, in a recognisably urban setting. Hence its sense of immediacy and impact as a sci-fi allegory.

As an action movie the pacing is a smooth acceleration and the editing seamless. Another trump card is the character arc of Wikus, from an office dweeb to a fugitive prawn. He starts off as a patronising jerk who cheerfully burns down houses and becomes a betrayed, bewildered anti-hero with a terrifying physical transformation he is powerless to stop, brought to life by Sharlto Copley’s remarkably convincing acting debut.

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