This is going to be a two-part review, with the other half being of Monsters
(2010). I watched them as a double feature and as such they're fantastic, reinforcing each other's themes regarding the "aliens on Earth" genre in the 21st century.
The backbone of "Aliens on Earth" of course is "they're evil and they want to kill us." This will never die, plus of course the sub-genre of alien invasion resonated with audiences who remembered World War Two. It'll always be fun to see monstrous aliens flying in like Rambo and turning us to strawberry jam... but these days, that's not saying much about the real world unless you live in Iraq or Afghanistan. (I'd crawl over broken glass to see an alien invasion movie from Iraq.) SF doesn't have to mean anything, of course, but it's wonderful when it does.
What District 9 and Monsters
are doing though is new. Both ask what would really happen if great big ugly space monsters came to visit. The answer, it would seem, is that they'd get shoved in with all the other poor people and become another political problem. Monsters
goes to Central America. District 9 on the other hand is South African.
The results of this are fascinating. District 9's aliens are living in a Johannesburg shanty town that was in fact a real poor neighbourhood. The filmmakers didn't have to build sets. They just went outside and filmed what they saw. The mutilated animal carcasses you see hanging up are real, the only shack they built for filming is Christopher Johnson's and the period of shooting was one of violent unrest in various South African townships. Furthermore even though the story is inspired by the real forced relocation of District 6 in apartheid-era South Africa, there really were forcible relocations taking place in the township where they were shooting at the time they were shooting it.
This makes it brutal. The director said its casual violence was meant to have a "harsh 1980s kind of vibe", citing "hardcore sci-fi/action" films such as the Aliens, Predator, Terminator and RoboCop movies. That it certainly achieves and the film's tone easily stands up to such comparison, but I think it also slightly belittles it. It's tackling meatier themes than all of those, despite Verhoeven's satire in RoboCop, even if it ends up having way more gun battles and action scenes than I'd expected.
These aliens are known derogatively as prawns. They're seven foot tall and can rip a human in two in the blink of an eye, but two million of them have been crowded into a shanty town and are redefining the term "underclass". They live in tin shacks and regularly get shot at. Gangsters sell them tinned cat food (which they eat without opening the tins) and take their alien weapons. There are members of the armed forces who regard killing prawns as almost a perk of the job. Meanwhile the government wants the prawns moved from their current terrible environment to one that's, amazingly, even worse, so they're sending in a bunch of bully boys and bureaucrats to get the prawns' assent to being shipped to this concentration camp. They're not too fussy about this. If a prawn momentarily makes contact with the appropriate section of the form while kicking one of your men through a steel wall, for instance, this counts as a signature.
This is a lot of fun. The film is so violent and appalling that it's funny. Alien guns make humans go splat in a cool way, for instance. There's also lots of entertainment value in scenes like the bullet-catching, not to mention the offscreen but still mind-wrenching sleaze. There's inter-species prostitution and the government's false accusations against one suspect on the run will include "prolonged sexual activity" with prawns. Unbelievable. These things look as if they were vomited up, not hatched.
Mind you, there are also scenes so shocking that even I couldn't laugh at them. The egg-burning scene was for me the worst, in which our heroes turn a flamethrower on fifty alien eggs and then laugh about the popping sounds. The alien-eating Nigerian gangsters are also kind of hard to watch. (Many Nigerians were deeply offended by this movie, among other things noting that the sociopathic gang leader Obesandjo has nearly the same name as ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo.)
As I've said, the film's second half has more gun battles and violence than I'd expected. It becomes an action film, albeit in fairness a pretty good one. We almost lose sight of the prawns themselves and it becomes hard to see them as a metaphor for anything. They're just themselves. There's a hero prawn with a plan, whose name is Christopher Johnson, but when he's not on-screen it's not always easy to see the prawns even as sentient. However to complain about this is to miss the point, I think. It's about how we react to the prawns. It's about the government suing anyone who uncovers its incompetently hidden Auschwitz-like medical experiments. It's about overuse of the phrase "terrorist attack". It's about our hero practically needing a rocket launcher to the head to stop being a complete shit to Christopher, because he's been seeing the prawns as subhuman right from the beginning and it's going to take more than a few SF plot twists to change that.
I like the design, by the way. There are a few early shots where I thought the prawns looked lightweight, but the look of their technology is perfect. Imagine alien machines that have been lying around a Johannesburg shanty town for 28 years. They look like that.
Whoops, nearly forgot that it uses a documentary format. This allows an interesting narrative effect early on as people comment on what we're watching from the future, but then later I thought detracted slightly from the immediacy. Soon after that though it disappeared from the film, so no problem. I quite liked it. It adds texture.
This movie was adapted from a 2005 short film by the same director, incidentally, called Alive in Joburg. It has one plot hole for me in that it takes the authorities a long time to start tracing our hero through his cellphone, but maybe those South African bully boys just don't have the latest equipment. Overall, I thought it was really good. Its more cerebral content is admittedly mixed in with lots of bullets, blood and blowings-up, but the latter doesn't nullify the former. On the contrary, the brutality is the point. Its ending isn't as neatly packaged as it might have been, but that's a good thing too. It's also worth mentioning that this film was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects and Best Editing, as well as making a ton of money. Personally I think it's one of the landmark SF films of its decade.