When District 9 opened in the summer of 2009, we went into the theater blissfully unaware of the viral marketing campaign and came out believing Neill Blomkamp might be the next great hope for science fiction movie making.
The story, adapted from his 2005 short “doc” Alive in Joburg, starts 20 years after an enormous alien ship has stalled above Johannesburg. Its occupants — a sentient, bipedal, hive species with rugged exoskeletons, antennae, feeding tentacles, and a guttural language accented by clicks — have been granted shaky refugee status. Despite the evident sophistication of their culture, human natives are repulsed, both, by the aliens’ difference and their need. The “prawns” — a pejorative nickname shared with the king crickets already considered pests in South Africa — are seemingly incapable of defending themselves against the extreme xenophobia of their neighbors or government policy, which makes the extermination of prawn broods routine.
On Sunday, April 17, after screening District 9 at the Alamo Drafthouse, Blomkamp will be on hand to share tales from the set of his first feature film and answer all your burning questions, like why the precious fuel was stored in a lunch box. (Just, please, don’t ask about Elysium.) Adam Savage, the great Mythbuster, will also be on hand to explore the viability of ARC guns, sonic blasters, and hermaphroditic copulation.
[jump] The prawns are isolated in slums where they succumb to crime, prostitution, and addiction. In Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp captured the all-too-familiar human reaction to refugees by simply interviewing native South Africans about the growing presence of Nigerians and Zimbabweans. Drawing on historical events which occurred during Apartheid in District Six, Cape Town, Blomkamp added to the palpable verisimilitude of District 9 by filming on location in a dirt-poor neighborhood where residents had been recently forcibly relocated, making District 9 the kind of science fiction that might gain the approval of George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, or Octavia Butler — at least for the first two-thirds of the movie.
The last act — an orgy of A1 action-adventure escapades, including electric “mulchers,” exo-suit battles, tractor beams, spaceships, explosions, and plot twists — turns District 9 into a true summer blockbuster. Our unlikely protagonist, Wikus Van der Merwe — an unexceptional company man who just follows orders however oppressive (appropriately, the character’s surname was brought to Africa by employees of the Dutch East India Company) — finds himself fighting South Africa’s military-industrial complex to save two prawns, after he is inadvertently infected by a bio-genetic fuel which converts his human DNA and allows him to unlock alien tech. It’s harrowing, fast-paced, and, quite literally, a blast.
After an initial state of rapture, sci-fi geeks compared District 9’s story line to 1988’s Alien Nation, and picked apart its plot holes and contrivances — most notably, given the loss of precious fuel, our heroes’ should not have been able to launch their command module; and, it seems likely that a government zealously working to unlock the secrets of prawn technology would’ve found that command module since it was caught on the evening news crashing into the city — but our own appreciation remained unthwarted. Unlike Avatar, which also came out in 2009, District 9 did not make it easy for human audiences to overcome human prejudice. The prawns are not beautiful or majestic (they crave cat food and vomit on themselves); love does not conquer all; and, Wikus — played with surprising ease by Blomkamp’s longtime friend and short-movie producer Sharlto Copley — is not a good guy (although he gains a bit of empathy for the prawns during his transformation, his acts of heroism are completely self-serving). Which is just the sort of gritty realism and moral ambiguity we appreciate in movies — sci-fi or otherwise.
District 9, Sunday, April 17, at 3 p.m. at the New Mission Alamo Drafthouse, 2550 Mission St., 415-549-5959 or drafthouse.com/sf.