With a pastiche of documentary-style techniques and a grim mix of sci-fi and politics, District 9 takes the alien genre and anchors it firmly in reality. The film, which arrived on DVD this week, explores what might happen if we treated extraterrestrials like illegal human aliens, corralling them into a gigantic slum and curtailing their rights (irrespective of species). It also forces a consideration of our cultural values, including the line between civil order and civil rights, and our basic definition of humanity.
Through fabricated archival news footage and interviews with various faux-academics, District 9 explains the backstory of its alien refugee camp in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the prawn-like creatures’ spaceship broke down. After laying the historical foundation, the film picks up 20 years later, when local officials at the all-powerful MNU (Multi-National United) attempt to evict the prawns. Tragedy ensues when geeky MNU bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is infected with genetic alien material, and his ordeal exposes MNU’s dark underside. Suddenly, he’s on the run for survival, while trying to stave off alien metamorphosis (highlights of which include black vomit, hair loss, open body sores and a sizable, slimy flipper-arm that Wikus does his best to hide).
In the film’s DVD release, director Neill Blomkamp and his crew discuss how they achieved some of the special effects and what elements they employed to ground the film in the real world. While Blomkamp looks like the roguish ingenue that he is, it’s also quickly apparent that his relative inexperience didn’t hinder his decision-making on set. In several extra segments, he discusses on District 9’s set design and overall style, describing how he sought out a 1980s feel, the challenges of creating the slum set and the long road to defining the aliens’ look. He and his colleagues, for example, drew hundreds of possible alien prototypes before landing on the prawn, which created its own set of problems for emotive expression, thanks to their signature tentacles.
District 9’s double-disc DVD also features a handful of deleted scenes that enhance the movie and reinforces its stylistic underpinnings. Several of the scenes are additional faux-interviews, including one with a woman who elaborates on the voodoo beliefs that spread in the slum, where locals prize prawn body parts for various rituals. While District 9 opens and closes with such orchestrated documentary material, it gets watered down in the ensuing action, descending with Wikus into a blaze of gunfire. The storytelling is tight enough to keep pace in the face of flying bullets, but it’s the documentary footage establishes that character depth as we meet characters like Wikus’s grieving wife, his stolid father and others with something to say about our beleaguered protagonist.
Without its DVD extras, District 9 is a fun movie with serious topics to mull over. Some of its tongue-in-cheek moments (Wikus’s infection, for example, becomes irresistible tabloid fodder), though, belie the filmmakers’ serious approach. Viewed with its additional segments and commentary, District 9 becomes bigger in scope, ambition and message.