Saturday, 29 October 2011

District 9 (2009)

Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

District 9 caused a furore on release.  Prawns.  A new look at xenophobia and racism.  Catfood.  Peter Jackson throwing his weight behind an up-and-coming auteur.  Oscar nominations.  It seemed like everyone was queuing up to praise former animator Neill Blomkamp’s first feature film.

So I’m a lot late to the party, but allow me onto the bandwagon: it is pretty awesome – a well executed and original concept, an alien movie set not around the White House, but the slums of South Africa, raising all sorts of questions whilst still providing a story and enough alien versus human interaction to satisfy the sci-fi, thriller and splatter fans.

Interestingly, the filmmakers say they did not set out to make a political film – but they have.  It may be satisfying entertainment, but the film is intrinsically political fare.  A story of separation and subjugation set in the place which formed the bedrock of apartheid couldn’t just be art, or irony: it’s a statement and invitation to reflect.

The subversion of accepted entertainment norms is possibly the most interesting aspect of that statement.  Innate human vanity usually casts our race as the oppressed, valiantly fighting against a more advanced and better-equipped foe bent on exterminating us.  Conversely, in this case of interplanetary aggression the aliens are refugees, washing up powerless in Earth’s skies, unable to prevent themselves being forced into isolated prison camps which become smaller and more squalid the longer their stay on earth.

Unsurprisingly there are culture clashes, exploitation, and uprisings amongst the marginalized, and we are forced to look at a few hard truths.  The harsher the humans become, the less the aliens care about hurting them, ensuring a continuing cycle of hostility – and then the film intensifies, establishing more than interplanetary violence, with a grimly realistic progression to groups of humans fighting each other for possession of unmasterable alien weaponry.

The threads of the story weave authenticity in with the big bangs and excellent CGI the genre demands.  Greed overtakes the desire for a solution, fear causes civil rights abuses, the possibility of technological advance trumps basic humanity, and violence escalates until direct orders are disobeyed and the only answer is to grab a stronger weapon.  District 9 is a magnificent debut, a thoughtful film in disguise, and with an open ending setting up the franchise, Blomkamp’s future in the ranks of Blockbuster-capable writer/directors seems assured.

Were you interested in District 9’s social commentary? For a chilling story of inhuman and escalating violence so severe the perpetrators seem more alien than human, attempt the utterly terrifying documentary-style Gomorrah, based on actual stories of the Neapolitan mafia.

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