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Sunday, 30 August 2009

Review: District 9, dir Neill Blomkamp

Christopher Johnson is a prawn but he's not the kind who goes berserk over a can of catfood. Wikus van der Merwe is turning into a prawn and loves catfood better than anything, with the possible exception of hamburgers. District 9 is a Johannesberg slum where the approximately 1 million aliens live but it's possible that in three years they will be saved by Christopher.

It's all very confusing. Variety called the movie the "thinking person's alien movie", according to Rolling Stone, and this is true. At least we can be sure of something in this terrifying world.

It's terrifying for the same reason that the original Alien movie was gripping. In that movie, am earth-based private company was intent on delivering a live alien to the home planet for the purpose of study and monetisation. Billions could be made by developing and selling new weapons based on the alien's biological technology. The plot of District 9 is held together by the same idea. Van der Merwe has the misfortune of being infected by a green spray from a strange-looking canister found in a slum hovel during a relocation exercise he is heading. He begins to change. The company - in this case called Multi-National United (MNU) - sets its people to work, including the MNU boss, who happens to be van der Merwe's father-in-law.

Van der Merwe escapes, aided by the superhuman strength afforded by his newly-metamorphosing body. But where can he go? He finds himself back in the slum, where he reunites with Christopher Johnson, the alien engineer who made the 'fluid' that infected him. The fluid is also fuel for the escape pod buried under Johnson's hovel.

There's plenty of action here. There's also Nigerian gangsters, inter-species prostitution, mercenaries, media scare campaigns and, best of all, an exo-suit that transforms the morphing van der Merwe into an almost-invincible killing machine.

But behind all this action is a lot of other stuff that conspires to coax the viewer into using his or her brain. The apartheid theme is chilling. Johannesberg is a lawless city where the government has given over the reins of state to large corporate interests. In this environment, anything is possible because profit is the only goal.

Racism and intolerance is fed by a visceral hatred shared by humans for the repellent-looking 'prawns' (the aliens) who eat everything from car tyres to live humans. Cat food is not removed from the can before consumption. The director is having a laugh, but his experience prior to moving to Canada has clearly inspired his choice of weapons in this crusade against notions of purity and superiority based on the lowest instincts.

Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director, produced the movie, and his name appears in the credits. But this is not a typical Hollywood blockbuster. Once the decision to locate the set in South Africa was taken a thousand ideas bloomed in director Blomkamp's fertile imagination. Blomkamp has an odd North American accent (which sounds almost Australian) but his aspirations are global.

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