Us and Them
Neill Blomkamp is a South African director who got his start as a 3D animator for a variety of sci-fi films and television series (including "Stargate SG-1," "Dark Angel," and "Smallville"). In 2005, he directed a short six minute film entitled Alive in Joburg, a faux documentary that explored the idea of extraterrestrial refugees exploited in South Africa. The film impressed Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame enough that he backed Blomkamp with $30 million to adapt the themes of Alive in Joburg into the feature length District 9.
The resulting film is simply fantastic.
The film uses documentary footage to establish that 20 years prior to the film's start, an alien spacecraft coasted down and halted above Johannesburg, South Africa. For months it hovered there, before teams were sent to cut into the hull. They find refugees, too sick and terrified to be of any threat or any help. They are shuttled down to Earth, a refugee camp is established called "District 9." First contact is nothing like anticipated. The leadership of the aliens is apparently dead or absent. The survivors are ignorant laborers with no education or knowledge of the ship's technology. What technology there is cannot be stripped and used by humans. It is partly biological in nature, only functioning in the hands of one of the aliens.
After 20 years, sentiment has turned against the million aliens, slurred as "prawns," living in District 9. Many contend that the money spent supporting the aliens is a waste, better spent on human problems. The stagnant situation is not viable in the long run. At last, control of the camp is turned over to a private conglomerate, MNU, which sets out to move the aliens far outside of Johannesburg into concentration camps. It's all wrapped in petty legalism. The aliens must be notified individually of eviction, keeping it all legal and within regulations. Teams are dispatched with armed escorts in order to get signatures from each alien resident in the district.
After the documentary introduction, we zoom in to the point of view of Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a low-level bureaucrat put in charge of the forced migration. Wikus is introduced dorkily struggling with a clip-on microphone and rambling to the camera about the nature of their work. He's meek and endearingly incompetent, but with an undercurrent of intelligence and strength gleaming through. He understands the alien language, can communicate with them. He's a quick study of alien behaviors and culture, explaining to the cameras how they make nests, how they eat the rubber tires off of unguarded cars, how to stop a fight before it starts by tossing them food. The cruelty with an honest face becomes rapidly apparent as Wikus supervises the destruction of an alien nest. Joking with a new guy about keeping a souvenir of his first "abortion," he points out that when the flamethrowers hit the eggs, they explode and sound just like popcorn popping. The brutality is casual, a shrug to the perpetrators because the victims aren't human. Then the critical moment: Wikus accidentally sprays himself with a black fluid that makes him sick. His team leaves the district, but Wikus' condition steadily worsens until the horrifying revelation that makes him a target.
Sharlto Copley superbly conveys the descent of a fundamentally decent and quiet man into the depths of hell, transforming from a meek office drone into someone taking up arms to save his own life. It's a beautiful performance, resembling Edward Norton's metamorphosis in Fight Club. There's a particular moment of desperation that ratchets the horror of Wikus' predicament even tighter: when he stands at a payphone collect calling everyone he knows, none of them accepting the call. "We've been friends for 19 years!" He shrieks.
Other characterization is done with a quick hand, letting broad brush strokes show us who these people are, not meandering too deeply as the story moves quickly along. The brutal father in law, the too-pretty wife, the meek bureaucrats, the vicious mercenaries, the superstitious human gangs preying on the prawns. Even the aliens: father, son, red-shirt.
At its heart, the film is about the lines we draw around "us" and "them," and how truly shaky those lines are. We can accept any sort of horror, any torture, as long as it isn't one of us. The film feeds on the horror implicit in how easy it is to carry a one and move someone back and forth across that line. A man in charge of an operation can in five minutes become nothing more than a pile of resources "worth billions of dollars," that must be harvested quickly. Anesthesia? That's for people not things, it might interfere with the procedure. Vivisection first, get the heart out as quickly as possible.
Bits and pieces of humor run throughout, laugh-out-loud gallows humor. The authorities release photoshopped footage of Wikus screwing one of the aliens to explain his condition, to turn the sentiment of any friends and family against helping him. It's mined here and there, a thug asking Wikus late in the film whether he'd used a condom. An alien asks Wikus why he killed a man after insisting that there should be no killing and Wikus erupts with the inarguable logic of "that was before he tried to kill me."
It is an intelligent and layered film, but as the old adage goes, ideas are boring, so if you must tell a story about ideas, be sure to wrap it with a bunch of explosions. MNU's primary concern is in figuring out a way to allow humans to use the prodigiously powerful alien weapons. And these aren't wee little ray guns, we're talking exotic rifles that auto-target and detonate people like spam in a microwave. And the jaw dropping kingmaker: gorgeous ten foot tall power armor that single-handedly eradicates entire squads of soldiers sent to take it down.
One complaint of other reviewers has been that the central questions of the film are never resolved. They're missing the point. We never find out why the aliens came, why most of them seem to have no understanding of their own technology, why they never rose up against those holding them. But that's because the story is told tightly focused on Wikus. He is preoccupied with survival during the 72 hours over which the film unfolds. He is not in any position to learn those tidbits, and the answers, while tempting, are completely irrelevant to the story being told here. If given, such answers would just be tacked on, gratuitous to the personal journey of Wikus.
The film ends in a curious mix of triumph, tragedy and ominous anticipation. One hopes that the implied and inevitable sequel can live up to the high bar set in District 9.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego's strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.