Why It Works: District 9
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
With Denis Villeneuve's fascinating alien encounter film ARRIVAL coming to theaters this weekend (you can read our review here), it's hard not to think about some of the impressive science-fiction dramas we've seen in recent years. Without a doubt, one of the biggest surprises in the genre was newcomer Neill Blomkamp's feature film debut DISTRICT 9, which served as an apartheid parable as told through the lens of an alien encounter. DISTRICT 9 blends reality and fantasy, documentary-style filmmaking and traditional cinema, and live action and CGI- all while telling a troubling tale of how complicated the world can be and the dangers of trying to categorize, simplify, and exploit it.
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
When we fist meet Wikus Van De Merwe, perhaps the last thing we expect is for him to become the main protagonist of the film. The opening of DISTRICT 9 is presented as documentary footage in which several talking heads break down the history of the aliens who now reside in District 9. We immediately assume this is just exposition and that we may never see any of these faces again, particularly the first one we see, who seems more like a court jester than a leading man. Once Wikus does come into the spotlight, we learn that he's maybe not as sensitive to the aliens as we'd like, but this is mostly offset by his overall innocent charm. Moreover, it's not long into the film that his role changes from stuffy field operative to the victim of a debilitating transformation, which certainly allows us to regain any sympathy we've lost thus far. Providing a much simpler story to latch onto are alien District 9 resident Christopher Johnson, his son, and their quickly ill-fated friend, who have been spending the last twenty years collecting fuel and parts in an effort to travel to and reactivate their mother ship and return to their home planet. Giving the aliens such a simple and universal storyline is a nice touch, as it goes a long way toward humanizing the "prawns" while also hammering home that this isn't just a simple story of good humans vs. evil alien invaders.
WHY WE CARE:
Before we're even introduced to the plot of DISTRICT 9, we get a look at the world of the film. Instead of a film about aliens invading Earth, we have an alien ship which lost power above Johannesburg twenty-eight years ago, and now its extraterrestrial inhabitants have been shunned and restricted to a shanty town called District 9. Right off the bat we have a unique world that lets us know this isn't just another alien invasion movie. As we learn about the current state of the district, the interviews seamlessly transition to being about Wikus, with the understanding that something has happened to him and that people feel betrayed by him. This sets up a nice mystery for us, particularly when juxtaposed next to the happy-go-lucky bureaucrat we've seen so far. Interestingly enough, DISTRICT 9 is almost exclusively treated as a documentary until we meet Christopher Johnson, at which point the film switches to an omniscient camera. Making the change here helps us see Christopher and his son as protagonists, as now we've switched to a more traditional style of movie. Beyond this point, the film switches back and forth between styles, which keeps us on our toes and blurs the line between ideologies. As for the plot itself, Wikus has been exposed to an alien fluid which is turning him into one of their kind and needs to work together with Christopher to get himself cured, get back to his wife, and help his new companions escape. It's a pretty straightforward plot once it comes together, which is necessary for a film where the world and the attitudes of the people in it are the main focus.
Fun fact: the male actor who provides most of the interviews in the film also plays Christopher Johnson.
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
Upon learning that humans have been killing and experimenting on aliens for their own gain, Christopher decides to prioritize helping his kind over helping Wikus, promising to come back for him in three years. After Wikus tries to get to the mother ship himself and fails, he dons a mech suit and decides to help Christopher and his son at all costs. The ensuing battle leaves Wikus defeated but happy as he watches Christopher's ship ascend to the now functional mother ship. Just as Venter, Wikus' former coworker and would-be murderer, closes in on his target, the aliens of District 9 descend on Venter and save Wikus, having seen the sacrifice their new resident made for their kind. In the film's epilogue, we learn that, while MNU was exposed for the atrocities it committed, Johannesburg doesn't seem to be in better shape than in the first place, with the aliens having been transported to the smaller District 10 and the people of Earth unsure what to expect from Christopher Johnson and his kind in the future. In the film's final shot, we see a fully transformed Wikus, crafting a flower from junk for his wife and waiting for Christopher to return. The movie watcher in us can appreciate the sacrifice Wikus made and Christopher's escape, while the film's dark message can give the philosopher in us plenty to process and discuss.
Because who doesn't love a good mech suit?
WHY WE REMEMBER:
While DISTRICT 9 is Neill Blomkamp's first feature film, it's hardly the filmmaker's first time behind a camera or effects rig. Blomkamp worked in animation for years and directed several short films, including his Landfall series, which led to his involvement in the defunct HALO movie, and Alive In Joburg, which would later be expanded into DISTRICT 9. The fusing of CG with handheld cameras and a cinéma vérité style of shooting is what would make DISTRICT 9 stand apart from other films in the genre. Add to that the fact that a film about aliens is used primarily to point out the atrocities humans are capable of, and Blomkamp's film feels more like historical fiction than science fiction. Trent Opaloch's cinematography and Julian Clarke editing also go along way to making us feel like we're somewhere between witnessing reality and watching an action film, and Clinton Shorter's fantastic score brims with both tension and optimism while finding its heart in the sounds of South African culture. Finally, Sharlto Copley and the rest of the cast give stunningly naturalistic performances, with the visual effects team giving us alien characters who are at once unearthly, organic, and sympathetic. With only three films under his belt, Neill Blomkamp has developed a unique style of filmmaking and made a name for himself in cinema, with DISTRICT 9 being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards as well as Blomkamp and his wife Terri Tatchell receiving a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Blomkamp's next project was to be a new film in the ALIEN franchise with Sigourney Weaver, but as Ridley Scott's own ALIEN: COVENANT has that on hold at the moment, he will instead be bringing us CHAPPIE 2 in 2018. That sounds like a good morsel to tide us over, though I'm sure most of us would prefer Blomkamp turned his focus to the long-dicussed DISTRICT 10.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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