In anxious anticipation of Chappie, I’d like to revisit Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 classic District 9.
This sci-fi drama is a thinly veiled cinematic representation of South African apartheid, with an insect-like alien species—referred to as “prawns”—substituted in as an undesirable “race” of citizens. After their spaceship stalls out of Johannesburg in 1982, the “prawns” are forced into a district of the city which quickly grows beyond its means, becoming a dirty, overrun shanty town.
The main action of the film involves Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley, stellar in his first film role), a goofy and nerdy employee of the Multinational United (MNU) Department of Alien Affairs who is assigned to lead a relocating endeavor for the “prawns.” While investigating a hut in District 9, Wikus is sprayed with an alien substance of some kind and, as the film progresses, he begins to transform into one of the “prawns.” Throughout this process he befriends two of the aliens, Christopher Johnson and his young child; Christopher claims that with his help they can reverse Wikus’s transformation and get the alien ship out of Johannesburg for good.
The film is an action, sci-fi, mockumentary adventure with a shocking amount of heart. When I first saw it, I was overwhelmed and energized, but also deeply saddened. Not only are the poor living conditions of the misunderstood and vividly realized “prawns” inhumane to say the least, but Wikus’s progression from clueless bureaucrat to fearful and desperate human-alien hybrid is emotional beyond what I could have expected.
The final frames of District 9 in particular left me a puddle of tears. They offer little hope for full-fledged understanding between the world’s cultures—including a bleak outlook on the racial tension in South Africa—and a deeply poignant message about what it might take to reach a place of mutual respect. It also has, for my money, one of the best final frames of any movie (though I’d love to know what your favorites are!). If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.
The Academy clearly agreed with my sentiments about the film. It was awarded four nominations at the 2010 Oscars, including a best picture spot—thanks to a new rule which allowed between 5-10 candidates instead of just 5—as well as best adapted screenplay (from Blomkamp’s own short film), best visual effects, and best editing.
Its narrative originality, superb CGI, and well-orchestrated action will draw you in; but the emotional impact, framed by a real world issue still deeply in need of attention, elevates this beyond most any other sci-fi film. It’ll be hard for Chappie to come close to topping this masterful work, but I am keeping my fingers crossed!
Moving on to the scene itself: I’ve chosen a few minutes from the close of the film. I would advise you not to watch if you haven’t seen the movie in its entirety—I want you to get the full effect!
*Spoilers beyond this point!*
In the scene below, Wikus is nearing an irreversible point in his transformation, he and the “prawns'” enemy, MNU soldier Koobus Venter, is threatening to kill him, and Christopher Johnson is attempting to get the alien spaceship moving. There’s a lot going on, but the few minutes on display here represent a great deal of what makes the film so humane and watchable: Wikus’s determination even in his deteriorated state, the very human quality of the “prawns” (especially in Christopher Johnson and his son’s connection), and the engaging mockumentary-style footage which provides the movie with an unrelenting immediacy and intensity.
A few notes: the scene cuts out before the shocking and moving final frames that I mentioned, so there are still surprises in store if you cheat and watch before seeing the full film. Also, there is some disturbing imagery (including Wikus’s half-transformed body) and non-gratuitous violence on display, so viewer discretion is advised!
Enjoy, and let me know your favorite District 9 scenes and moments.