Thursday, December 24, 2009

Real Sci-Fi -- Reflections on "District 9"

Neill Blomkamp is a filmmaker to watch out for, if his District 9 is any indication. This is a remarkable debut film from a writer/director with a keen understanding of how to tell intelligent, character-driven science fiction. After all, most sci-fi movies are just filled to the brim with creepy alien-types we humans have to shoot down for (insert noble cause here). District 9 goes against the grain a bit and weaves a story that is not only kick-ass sci-fi, but makes some keen observations about humanity in the process.

Here's the scenario. Twenty years ago a giant spaceship comes to earth and hovers over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. No one comes out. So, we go in and find a race of aliens we dub the "Prawn" because of their rather hideous, shrimp-like features. At first, what constitutes as international aid for the aliens becomes an attempt to contain them in South African ghettos, the largest and most notorious being District 9.

The Prawn are considered unwelcome by most on earth, but there are many who seek to exploit them. Everyone from government agencies like the MNU to local Nigerian gangs want something from them. Namely, weapons. Apparently the Prawn technology can only be operated by them. They are biological weapons that interact with the Prawn DNA.

This is where Wikus (Sharlto Copley) comes in. He is a nebbish fellow who has just been named as the lead MNU officer of the alien task force. His job is simple: get the Prawn to sign letters agreeing to eviction from District 9 so they can move to a much larger camp. Getting these letters signed proves to be difficult, of course, and Wikus encounters a strange alien device that squirts on him and begins to turn him into one of the Prawn.

District 9 separates itself from other sci-fi films in the way in which it treats the alien race. When we meet them, they have been living on earth for twenty years, and have developed their own culture within the confines of the district. Many critics, I imagine, might ask the question as to why the Prawn didn't use their incredible weapons to take down the humans, but I think the movie makes the point that over time they were devastated by a much greater weapon: hopelessness. It's the same weapon that hurt many Jews during the Holocaust.

I remember reading the memoir Night with a group of ninth graders, and one of the great questions that is always asked early in the book when Elie Wiesel and the people from his hometown of Sighet are being admitted into Auschwitz is "Why didn't the Jews fight back?" There were more Jews in a concentration camp than would stand to reason they could take the Nazis in a fight. What my students always fail to grasp is how powerful emotions like fear and hopelessness are.

I think Blomkamp is trying to make a similar point in this film. The Prawn have been ravaged by life in the ghetto, addicted to eating cat food, and constantly under survelliance by soldiers with guns, not to mention being surrounded by urban overlords looking to further their own interests. This is real life, not just sci-fi. Life in the ghetto can destroy a soul.

In the midst of hopelessness, though, is hope. And that comes in the form of the Prawn Christopher and his son. Even the Prawn have family values, and the story of this father and son is rather poignant. Sure it's odd watching two shrimp people interact lovingly, but it's a testament to the realism of the movie that I didn't start laughing.

District 9 is a great film. It makes you believe it is true -- and even worse...that it could actually happen. I think it's safe to say we should expect even better things from Neill Blomkamp down the road.

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