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District 9: The Fall and Rise of Wikus

August 21, 2009

The identity of a place is held within the collective goals of its citizens.  When a foreign population with mysterious intentions is introduced, there is a period of great unrest.  Doubts and fears grow increasingly strong as people grapple with their own prejudices and preconceptions.  

war games

war games

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 tackles this phenomenon.  After an alien ship comes to a halt over the town of Johannesburg, South Africa, a diseased and starving population finds refuge in government camps set up in the center of town.  20 years later, the alien population has swelled to almost 2 million. Surviving on a diet of raw meat and cat food, the aliens have devolved into an animalistic society inciting the residents of Johannesburg to demand their relocation.

Charged with this task is the privately contracted Multi National United.  The law, however, demands a 24 hour notice before eviction. Heading up the team in charge of acquiring the alien signatures is Wikus Van de Merwe, a simple paper pusher and the son in law of the head of the MNU.  “I’m not saying what he did was right; he took the choices that were given to him,” his coworker tells the camera.  The film’s set-up drops enough clues so that the audience is aware that Wikus does something important, but what is it that he has done? District 9 is really Wikus’s story.

Wikus is the rock star on the world’s stage.  Relishing his perceived power, he prances through the village uncovering hidden weapons, stolen computers, and criminal mischief.  The rights of the “prawns” are tenuous, and the act of obtaining their signatures is clearly only formality.  Within minutes of infiltrating the camps, the private contractors are opening fire on confused aliens, smashing them with sticks, and arresting them for perceived offenses.  Wikus, stumbling upon a shack housing nesting fetuses, pompously shows the camera how unplugging their life source aborts the growing process. When the MNU torches the shack, Wikus gleefully compares the popping sounds of the burning cocoons to popcorn.  

For a while, Wikus gains strength with each new discovery.  Sharlto Copley as Wikus is superb in revealing the growing joy and confidence of this once timid man.  It happens slowly, and as the arc of his character reaches its zenith, things suddenly go wrong.  Discovering a metal tube, he comments, “this is definitely alien.”  This accidental discovery will send Wikus spiraling toward his destiny.  

District 9 is a universal tale of fear, prejudice, hatred, and hypocrisy.  The alien population is symbolic of any misunderstood people, and the tragedy of District 9 is in the fact that regardless of the amount of education, experience, and historical perspective humanity holds, the torture and destruction of alien beings continues.

In following Wikus Van de Merwe’s transition from arm of the state to defender of a culture, Blomkamp shows particular strength at building emotional connections between his characters, alien and human, and his audience.  But the director has more on his mind than mere fun and games; history harbors countless atrocities perpetrated on alien cultures.  He effectively recreates these horrors from South African apartheid to the Mariel boat lifts.  But these are only two examples; all we must do is look beyond ourselves to see a world full of “ignorance, and prejudice, and fear.”  

the arc of Wikus

Originally a short feature, District 9 works well as a full length sci-fi, action/adventure.  The story moves quickly, chronicling the first 20 years through a series of interviews and documentary style footage.  Once the Multi National United team enters the camps, the confusion and chaos seems gritty and real.  There is a lot to absorb as references to history’s horrors continue to arise, from the Nazi experiments performed during WWII to the most recent controversies surrounding America’s use of private contractors in Iraq. 

The final act is violent and raucous with a clear delineation between good and evil.  Blomkamp sets his audience up effectively for the emotional climax, and each planted seed, however clichéd, works perfectly.  Any analysis of the film will surely reveal too many contrivances and plot holes; but for 2 hours, District 9 delivers the goods.  It is Scarface meets Independence Day meets E.T., but it is all originality and pure fun.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. power to the people permalink
    October 25, 2009 11:29 am

    good cinematic reading of the film. the first one to compare scarfce (clearlly a sentense like: “is that all you got?” is a homage, as well as the exposition alike the “cuban consentration camp” sequance from scarface. also the nazi like enviornment, and the consentration campsare well detected. i didnt think it was a good movie, although it made me become misanthropic, and prefer a shrimp’s POV of a humans one. its basicly yet another Cliché sci-fi with no logics or credibility what so ever, a very poor casting, and a disability to deside wether it is a comedy, a drama or an action movie.

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