It comes as an absolutely gobsmacking and equally refreshing surprise that the blockbuster of the year does not contain any recognisable box office stars and isn’t even American – it’s South African. With the last golden period for sci-fi flicks (Bladerunner, Aliens) decades behind us, we’ve suddenly got two gems in one year.
First came the small but beautifully composed Moon, and now we get the big budget District 9 which is by turns intelligent, thought-provoking, funny, entertaining and probably the best thing you’ll see in the cinema all year.
The action starts in 1990 when a huge alien spaceship begins to hover above South Africa. It soon becomes clear something is wrong with the craft and its inhabitants (known as “prawns” because of their appearance) are in some distress. As they seem non-threatening the international community sets out to help with “humanitarian” aid – clothing, food and shelter in a refugee camp which becomes known as District 9.
Twenty years later and District 9 resembles a ghetto, just like the apartheid townships of old. Many of the prawns have become addicted to beer and cat food and are being exploited by Nigerian gangsters. With the South African public fast turning against the aliens, seeing them as unwanted immigrants they believe are taking their jobs and precious resources, the government contracts a private firm known as Multi-National United (MNU) to forcibly remove them from District 9 to a new, custom-built camp well away from public view.
However, the prawns don’t really want to move from what has become their home and don’t really understand the government’s motives and so start to resist. MNU’s commander of operations Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) suddenly finds himself in the middle of a PR disaster – with the world’s cameras upon him the eviction rapidly spirals out of hand. When Wikus is accidentally exposed to an alien chemical he becomes as much of an outcast as the prawns and so must turn to an alien and its son to try and put matters right.
District 9 is all about “alienation”; about humanity’s distrust of the different, xenophobia, and “racial” hatred. The fact it is set in South Africa – until recently a country riven with racial tension under the apartheid regime – is deliberate as you are meant to see the parallels between the black/white conflict and human/prawn conflict.
It also has much to say about the plight of refugees of any race, nation, or even planet, as they flee from perilous situations only to find themselves vilified and hated in the place where they seek asylum.
However, District 9 doesn’t preach. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp has crafted a rollicking good ride with some stunning special effects, plenty of action and some nice comic touches. Sharlto Copley, who really has to carry the film almost single-handedly as the only human star, is magnificent, while the aliens are so well realised they soon become familiar rather than creepy. Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson produced this movie and hats off to him that he managed to persuade Sony Pictures to spend considerable sums of money on a film with no big stars and set in South Africa, not the States.
District 9 successfully rewrites the rules about what constitutes a blockbuster and it deserves nine out of 10 for doing so.