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Welcome to District 9
August 19, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
Tops at the box office this week, the unusual sci-fi parable “District 9” is full of special effects, but manages not to lose its way in them.
Set in South Africa and marking the big-screen debut of director-co-writer Neill Bloomkamp, the gritty action adventure turns the usual aliens-from-outer-space formula on its head: They’re not the villains this time. We are.
Underlying that is the even more basic movie truth — and staple of literature since literature began — nicely summed up by George Kennedy to Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” more than 40 years ago:
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
In “District 9,” the problem is interracial, well, actually, interspecies … not to mention, interplanetary in nature. It began when an alien spacecraft had engine trouble over our planet 20 years ago and came to a halt above Johannesburg. There the creatures aboard were rounded up and sent to live the squalid ghetto that gives the movie its title.
They’re lanky beings — or maybe just starving —with some mechanical parts and mandibles like fingers over their mouths. Their appearance has given them the nickname “prawns” from the Afrikaners who taunt and torment them under the pretext of government social programs, as well as the Nigerian gangsters who rule the ’hood.
Repulsive at first sight, they sort of grow on you … like “E.T.’s” reptilian cousins. They start growing on Sharlto Copley — the film’s star who plays lily-livered bureaucrat Wilkus Van De Merwe, head of a District 9 relocation program — especially after he gets infected with a mysterious substance and his hand morphs into a pincher.
It’s “Spider-Man,” with an Afrikaner accent.
But it’s also a metaphor that’s more than comic-book deep. In this land where scars and memories of apartheid are still fresh, the treatment of the “prawns” says more about humanity than science fiction.
The accident that infects Wilkus not only allows him to feel the pain of the District 9 dwellers, but also makes him an enemy of the corrupt corporate powers running the state.
It also gives him new powers befitting his new status as a fugitive, turning the movie into a more standard good-guys-bad-guys shootout in the final reel.
While “District 9” is full of stuff that usually bugs me in action movies — hand-held cameras, jerky editing, lots of yelling (made even more incomprehensible by the accents), somehow it still made a powerful emotional connection.
In District 9, the aliens speak a language, subtitled on screen, somewhere between mechanical sounds and whale or dolphin calls. As Wilkus forges an alliance with one of them and his young son, the language barrier seems to disappear.
There are also hints that the aliens may be more advanced than we are, but have been reduced to passive submission by their treatment. Along with the tenderness between the father and his son, the audience shares Wilkus’ growing awareness of the common bonds uniting beings who seem worlds apart.
“District 9’s” box-office success — its $30-plus million was as much as it cost to make — is the only language Hollywood listens to, especially after knocking off projects like “G.I. Joe” that you could make six “District 9s” for.
But it’s scoring with audiences because it speaks to them in emotional terms. It’s ironic that the metaphor of the aliens in the ghetto comes from a country trying to work its way beyond cultural separation, but lands in one heading in the other direction.
Signals of racial progress and hope for a more united society triggered by last November’s election have given way in recent weeks to shrill, polarized, increasingly violent expressions hailed by one side as free speech, and by the other as bullying threats to democracy.
Interestingly, each side uses the same arguments and symbols — Hitler’s mustache is making a comeback — to paint the opposition. Interesting, too, is the way the spectrum of communication technology, from cable news networks to blogs and Twitter, has been put to work replacing information with opinion.
The new tech is chillingly effective at disseminating misinformation and lies, stridently repeated, or yelled, with arrogant assurance.
A society built on such lies — based on fear, ignorance and prejudice — can’t stand, as South Africa’s embrace of apartheid shows.
What’s scary is that fictional aliens from outer space are the most articulate ones delivering this message right now — and they don’t even speak our language.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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