IN 1970, the whites-only South African rugby team came to Dublin to play Ireland, and ten thousand anti-apartheid protesters assembled outside Lansdowne Road. “Sadly,” wrote Damian Corless, author of ‘GUBU Nation’, “the gesture was somewhat undermined by the fact that there were three times that number of alickadoos cheering on the [Springboks] inside”.
The occasion reached its immortal nadir when protest organiser Kader Asmal, an exile from apartheid, was marshalling his anti-racist troops. As Asmal – who later became Minister for Education in South Africa after the ANC came to power – pushed through the ranks of his own placard-brandishers, one of them exclaimed loudly: “Who does that f***ing nigger think he is?”
Apartheid has been examined on screen many times, most famously in Richard Attenborough’s ‘Cry Freedom’. But never in quite the manner of the allegorical ‘District 9’, Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut.
District 9 is the name given to a Johannesburg ghetto that houses 1.8 million aliens – not foreign nationals, but visitors from outer space who have been there for 20 years. It’s dirty, poor, and the ‘prawns’ are basically left to scavenge for themselves. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is given the job of overseeing whole-scale alien evictions to an even worse part of town.
The sharp practice and casual anti-alien racism of MNU, the security company charged with kicking the prawns out, is depicted in an under-stated manner. The film is at its most intriguing in the early stages, as the inhumanity of the humans is exposed, and the documentary-style adopted by the film-makers (which include Peter Jackson as a producer) works well.
Things change for Wikus, the lead character, after he meets an alien named Christopher Johnson (Anglicisation didn’t) and is exposed to an alien chemical. He slowly becomes half-man, half-alien (shades of ‘The Fly’ here), is experimented on, and eventually finds himself gamekeeper-turned-poacher.
There are some memorable action sequences, and like all the best fables, the moral doesn’t get in the way of the plot. Viewers are left to draw their own analogies with South Africa’s history or the modern-day treatment of refugees in various countries. The second half of the movie is in some ways more traditional action caper, with plenty of shooting and gore, though the alien involvement allows the underdog-versus-evil corporation story to go in a few different directions.
Like ‘Moon’, the wonderful recent release from David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, ‘District 9’ is destined to become a sci-fi classic. The trailer has piqued many people’s interest, but this is one flick that lives up to the teaser, with quite a few scenes that will be iconic in years to come. The special effects are great (the aliens look the business), but never drown out the story, and like ‘Alien’ or ‘Terminator’, you don’t have to be a fan of the genre to get a kick out of it. There is humour, pathos and changing relationships to go with the shoot-em-up stuff. Certain storylines and set-pieces are reminiscent of a whole range of cinema classics, yet at the same, ‘District 9’ is utterly original in many respects.
Certain parts of the back story and culture of the aliens are explored, but there’s more than enough that isn’t spelled out to whet the appetite for a sequel and/or prequel. The questions raised towards the end would seem to pave the way for a return to what could prove a very successful franchise. Roll on ‘District 10’ and ‘District 11’, I say.