'District 9': Gritty, Violent, Brilliant

By Pacatte, Rose | National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 2009 | Go to article overview

'District 9': Gritty, Violent, Brilliant


Pacatte, Rose, National Catholic Reporter


"District 9," a science-fiction action horror story by freshmen South African filmmakers, conquered the box office on its opening weekend Aug. 14 and deservedly so.

Twenty years after an extraterrestrial spaceship parks over the city of Johannesburg, the alien travelers have been assigned to live in what amounts to a South African township, that is, a gigantic, sprawling, decaying ghetto. The aliens are called "prawns" because they resemble bottom-feeding crustaceans and they are multiplying rapidly.

Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the naive government office hack who is appointed to get the aliens to sign eviction notices, so that the forced transfer to a tent city for "humanitarian" reasons will appear legal. Wikus is a bureaucratic pawn who goes merrily about his task, until he encounters resistance and discovers which creatures are authentically human. In the process he gains his Own humanity and becomes a hero.

This sci-fi film is a study in the genre, which is, of its nature, a hybrid of many genres. It is low-budget, reminiscent of 1950s sci-fi black-and-white B movies like Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956). "District 9" revisits familiar visual and territory elements such as the handheld camera technique of "The Blair Witch Project" (1999), which was also made with a staggeringly low budget. The visual and thematic derivatives that occurred to me are "Transformers" (2007 and 2009) and "Men in Black" (1997 and 2002) without the gloss or the humor. The hovering mother ship recalls "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) and the apocalyptic landscape and violence, "The Terminator" franchise. "District 9" is a brilliant, gritty, intelligent film, with a touch of sad romance, not unlike "The Matrix" (1999 and 2003), though "The Matrix" was elegant by comparison.

The political overtones are local and global. They refer to South African history such as the invention of and rationale for concentration camps (1900-1902) by the British in the second Boer War. The implication that the living conditions in townships still exist, as they did under apartheid, is less than subtle. The government of South Africa dominating "District 9" is fascist, demonstrating a Nazi-like ideology with parallels to the genocide carried out by the Nazis in World War II. Then add in the current global industrial war complex, the philosophical/psychological fear of "the other" that afflicts people from governments to tribes. Isolate the other and it becomes easy to dehumanize them, then harm, kill and exterminate them.

The violence and gore in the film are intense, fitting its theme of fear-based genocide. The commentary by journalists and experts in the film seems disconnected, cold, uninvolved and inconclusive. A sequel is surely a possibility, in which the question, "What happens next?" will be answered.

The story suggests a strong messianic theme that begs for analysis. The parallel with Christ is not exact, but consider that Christopher Johnson was the name of the alien who went back to his planet, with his son, to save his people. …

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