A World Apart: District 9

Peter Jackson demonstrates his legendary ability to fuse comedy with magnitude evident in his earlier experimental works (Braindead, Bad Taste) in his latest foray into film perfectly. Telling the story of everyman Wikus Van De Merwe (portrayed by the terrifically twitchy Sharlto Copley); a respectable man who is not particularly strong or remarkable in any way, his ordinariness is contrasted with the enormity of the alien vessel lingering overhead Johannesburg that arrived unannounced 28 years prior. The film effectively merges styles beginning as a documentary compiled of interview footage adding realism to the proceedings in the same respect as the Blaire Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, switching to traditional film narrative as Wikus, a member of Multi-National United stumbles across a dangerous piece of alien technology whilst trying to move the prawns from District 9 into a supposedly more appropriate camp almost reminiscent of the concentration camps appropriated to the Jews.

The line between who is friend and who is foe blurs dangerously as Wikus’ own identity is thrown into jeopardy. The film follows a vein of others that explore some not-too-far off dystopian disaster that causes humanity to reflect upon their own condition. Set in South Africa, the strains of the black/white apartheid are joined by a tertiary ‘other’ – that of the alien or the degenerately referred to ‘Prawn’. Even with a universal foe in the Prawn, humanity is still unable to unify as a whole. The white characters are manipulative, hypocritical and tyrannical whilst the Nigerians are primitive, bestial, exploitative and brutal, none more so than the paralyzed Nigerian Warlord Mumbo who exploits the prawns by exchanging cat food for their highly advanced weaponry and arranging inter-species prostitution. The aliens by contrast show camaraderie, kindness and respect toward one another.

Wikus’ degenerate transformation from man to alien makes him an outcast living in a limbo land. Turned upon by his fellow colleagues for having blood perfectly in the balance and thus being able to operate Alien weaponry which is biologically infused who wish to harvest his unique DNA, Wikus initially head of deporting the aliens, finds himself living among them; an outcast, other, outsider. He develops a touchingly tender friendship with prawn Christopher Johnson and his young son which leads the two to storm MNU laboratories to reclaim the fuel that can power the mother ship. Christopher claims he must return to Wikus in three years because he must use the minimal fuel to get help for his fellow aliens. Wikus, unable to accept this, powers the ship himself and attacks Christopher. Attacked by the Nigerians who wish to devour his infected body parts to accumulate alien power, Wikus is aided by Christopher’s son and in a dizzyingly anxiety-inducing succession of fights and chases, Wikus allows Christopher to return to the ship where he emotionally promises he will return to him in three years time with a cure.

Advanced upon by the MNU, Wikus is saved by the slum aliens; he has become one of them. The film incorporates a sense of frenzied pace by following Wikus in terms of the hours since his contamination. Wonderfully frantic and bewildering, muddling comedy (the MNU’s doctored footage of Wikus enjoying the pleasures of a prawn prostitute/vomiting at his surprise party/Wikus “I’m the sweety man” speech) and merciless shrill terror (as Wikus is nearly operated on without anesthesia) the film is a beautiful and harrowing account of one man’s transformation. Ending with documentary footage once more so that the film comes full circle, Wikus friends, family and colleagues debate what became of him. The film alludes that Wikus, known for his personalized homemade gifts, has left his wife a metal rose, as he patiently survives the slums awaiting Christopher’s promised return. Littered with profound imagery, particularly the view of the ship used in the advertising campaign, this film contextualizes the alien genre and revolutionizes the alien. The alien CGI renders them beautifully believable and their emotional responses are flawless; Christopher’s son manages to be simultaneously horrifically alien and wonderfully adorable.

This is an interesting foray into the sci-fi genre that analyses what makes one individual or group ’other’ as Wikus not only becomes alien but alienated. As Christopher Johnson’s unnamed son remarks “We are the same”. If we ignore that which separates us such as race, gender and culture – we are essentially all the same. Jackson explores a theme which has been ongoing since Shakespeare’s literary reign – the theme of one’s identity in a masse. As Shylock famously stated, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”. A heart-warming and emotional film which will thoroughly surprise you by its end and make you want to hug your loved ones just that bit tighter.

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