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October 26th 2009 print

Philippa Martyr

Prawn cocktail

The full complexity of modern South Africa – drugs, gangsterism, crime, black African superstition, white superiority, a desperate and corrupt military – is aired for public consumption, and a very unpleasant mess it is.

I normally find it quite easy to write film reviews, but I saw a film recently that has made me go away and think (dammit). It was the absolutely harrowing District 9 – a film which should have come with an R rating, but for some reason was classified MA (15+). 

The reasons I would have expected an R rating are its sheer nightmarish quality, horrible medical procedures, endless vomiting and general freakiness. I found it Kafkaesque in the extreme, but about three-quarters of the way through I realized that it was reminding me vividly of another film – George Clooney’s Syriana. The hand-held camera, the relentless pursuit and shooting, the awful sense that this is not a film which is going to have a happy ending, are all there in District 9, only this time it’s aliens in South Africa. District 9 is in an odd way more realistic than Syriana, in that it uses poor-quality film, is much more choppy, and preserves the ‘documentary’ sense to the bitter end. 

For those of you still in the dark, District 9 is set in Johannesberg, where for the last twenty years a giant crippled alien spaceship has been stranded above the city. Its sick and dying inhabitants were airlifted out of the craft and settled in a horrible slum called District 9. As the situation has gradually soured and become a social problem, the South African government wants to relocate the aliens to a new tent encampment, over 200 kilometres away. This will be carried out by the sinister MultiNational United, a private military corporation. 

Yeah, yeah. Apartheid, multinationals, yadda yadda; at this point you would be forgiven for looking around for Michael Moore. But actually, District 9 is primarily about inhumanity and inhuman behaviour of all kinds. Blacks and whites are both shown in the most unflattering of lights in this film; Nigerian gangsters exploit and prey on the inhabitants of District 9, who are universally referred to as ‘the prawns’. The full complexity of modern South Africa – drugs, gangsterism, crime, black African superstition, white superiority, a desperate and corrupt military – is aired for public consumption, and a very unpleasant mess it is. 

The primitive horribleness of modern medicine also gets a guernsey. The anti-hero, MNU employee Wikus van de Merwe, goes in to clear out District 9, but gets infected with alien DNA and gradually begins to turn into a ‘prawn’ himself. The parallels with Kafka are obvious, but taken to a new extreme in that Wikus is trapped in a genetics lab, and after being forced to take part in some horrific experiments (aliens aren’t covered by the Nuremberg Code, apparently), he almost becomes a live organ donor. Wikus’ changing DNA means that he is the only ‘human’ on earth who can use the aliens’ mysterious and incredibly powerful weaponry. Later a Nigerian gangster boss will try to perform an identical organ-removal ceremony, but this time it’s because he wants the alien ‘power’ to enter him. 

Minor nitpicks: although the movie heroically preserves the ‘documentary’ genre, there are parts where you have to suspend disbelief and accept that the documentary team is being allowed to film massive shootouts from different camera angles. Colonel Koobus Venter, the MNU arch-killer, also succumbs several times to the age-old villain error of ‘monologuing’ (cf The Incredibles), and then of course something happens and he isn’t able to shoot his victim after all. The movie is perhaps a little long, and some cuts wouldn’t have hurt it. But overall, it was extremely thought-provoking and non-politically correct. Warning: don’t watch it on a full stomach.