Hard Prawn

district9

Most of what you’ve heard about DISTRICT 9 is true. If you haven’t heard much, you perhaps shouldn’t read further because there’s no way to avoid a certain number of spoilers here, and I enjoyed the film knowing practically nothing about its story. You might want to do the same.

Saw the movie with Fiona and regular Shadowplayer “m” (Mary), whose South African origins proved invaluable in decoding the film’s imagery and plot. The movie is produced by Peter Jackson (with FX by WETA, his digital effects house) and directed by Neill Blomkamp, from a screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, and shot in Blomkamp’s native South Africa.

The plot’s premise, which is all I knew going in, is that 20 years before the story starts, a huge alien mothership descends to Johannesburg and… just hovers there. The malnourished aliens found therein are housed in a refugee camp which quickly becomes a slum, and by the time of the story have become a fully-fledged underclass and a political football.

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Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe, a bureaucrat assigned the job of obtaining signatures from the alien population authorizing their transportation into what is basically a concentration camp. Followed, initially, by documentary cameras, he enters District 9, and a world of pain.

Mary pointed out three major ways in which the film is indebted to its country of origin (I like the idea of other countries producing US-style blockbusters, as long as they don’t lose their local identities).

(1) Any time South Africans tell a story about a stupid white Afrikaaner, he’s always called Van Der Merwe. “So, Mr Van Der Merwe walks into the pub…”

(2) Obviously the idea of an alien underclass is a partial allegory on the whole history of Apartheid, and obviously its one fraught with difficulties. Mary pointed out that the forced mass relocation which this film centres on was a very South African phenomenon in the bad old days.

(3) The aliens are derisively known as “prawns.” (“You can’t say they don’t look like prawns,” says one interviewee, defensively.) This is a reference to the Parktown Prawn, an insect pest that began infesting Jo’burg in the ’60s. Mary thought they were possibly an Antipodean import, but this appears not to be the case. Still, it’s appropriate to a New Zealand-South African coproduction.

The movie is a lot of fun, and quite emotional at times. This must be what they mean by “character arc”: Wikus starts off as a comedy asshole, like David Brent in The Office (n analogy strengthened by the film’s mockumentary style) , then gradually becomes a hateful asshole as we see him strutting his stuff in the ghetto, a government hatchet man who’s really in the pocket of big business (the use of private sector mercenaries is a nod to the present situ in Iraq), then becomes a pitiful victim as things turn against him, and finally, at the very end, he’s a kind of hero worthy of our respect. That kind of movement is rare in a commercial movie, even though all the execs read their Robert McKee and are devoted to the idea of character change.

The first half of the movie is ideas-driven and political, the second is basically a video game. But a really good one. It’s the first movie I’ve seen to feature a gravity gun — a kind of cannon that lets you pick up heavy objects telekinetically and then fire them like rockets: Wikus creams one soldier with a pig carcass.

Of course, the allegorical approach to race via sci-fi is tendentious. Even as a kid I felt uncomfortable with CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES presenting itself as a satiric slant on black power. Blomkamp gets himself into some very deep water by presenting the aliens as drones in an insect race, their leaders somehow M.I.A. When a clever “prawn” with the slave name of Christopher Johnson turns up, it’s not clear if the aliens are smarter than previously assumed, or if he’s part of the missing leader class. The idea of an insect social structure is fair game for sci-fi, but perhaps unwise if you’re intending any kind of comment on human society. Also, considering the film’s aspirations to “say something” about race, its treatment of Nigerians could do with being a bit more nuanced.

Where the movie gets interesting is when Wikus is “infected” by an alien device which causes him to start mutating into a prawn himself. While the outward manifestations — loss of teeth and fingernails — are a direct nod to Cronenberg’s THE FLY, and his pursuit by the authorities as he tries to conceal his heavily malformed arm harks back to THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (AKA THE CRAWLING TERROR), the plot idea has shades of THE WATERMELON MAN — and FREAKS. The idea of taking a bigot and turning him into the very thing he sees himself as superior to, and then subjecting him to the attendant persecutions, is also explored, in cruder terms, in John Landis’ ill-fated episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie.

Some of this is surprisingly moving. As his DNA crosses the human-alien “colour bar,” the authorities seek to “harvest” his organs to help unlock the secrets of alien technology, which so far has failed to function in human hands. Sharlto Copley’s performance, broadly comic at first, becomes chillingly desperate, and there’s also a heart-breaking performance from a CGI alien he’s forced to kill in a weapons test.

Of course Wikus escapes, now able to use alien weaponry, and becomes a one-prawn killing machine, suited up in an ALIENS-style exoskeleton, with self-targeting death rays (Blomkamp rather overuses the “blood-spatter on camera lens” effect) and grav gun. Joining forces with Christopher Johnson, he’s mutating not just into an alien but also into an outsider hero.

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Like I say, enjoyable, emotionally engaging, flawed, interesting. Blomkamp has some of the bad-taste gonzo gusto of early Peter Jackson, without the more crass elements (I recall with a shudder the AIDS jokes in MEET THE FEEBLES), and the epic ham-pomp of late Peter Jackson, without the hideous bloat of LORD OF THE KONG. Lots of giant plot questions unanswered, but they’re so foregrounded I have to welcome this invitation to enjoy a bit of “negative capability.” And there’s always the sequel to sort things out.

17 Responses to “Hard Prawn”

  1. Like you, I hadn’t read anything about the film before going to see it, so everything beyond the basic premise was a surprise.

    I absolutely loved the first half hour. An incredibly impressive handling of shifting tones — gross humour, satire, social horror. And I thought the shift to the paranoid chase section that makes up the second half hour was also great. I wish more films could handle that sort of narrative rail-jumping half as well.

    The last third was perhaps a little too stretched out, but not terribly, and at least the action was inventive and (as in Hurt Locker) clearly edited and easy to follow.

    Thanks for the South African background, by the way. Very interesting.

  2. Thanks to Mary for that!

    Blomkamp’s little short film is quite nice, but nothing about it suggests to me that he was capable of pulling this off. By contrast, the short film 9 is magnificent, so I’m hoping that feature, which we saw the trailer for, will be as satisfying.

  3. In fairness the Nigerian gangsters are taken from life. Wherever you go in southern Africa it’s the Nigerian community that is perceived to be ( whether fairly or not ) the focus of organised crime. As the Somalis are in East Africa and the Russian immigrants are perceived here in America or the Italians a few generations before. Organised crime is rife in Nigeria and emanates from it. Most obviously to the average internet user via the ubiquitous Nigerian 419 e-mail scams.

    I loved District9 , seeing an African blockbuster movie makes me very happy.

  4. And it’s better than The Gods Must Be Crazy.

    I realise the Nigerian thing has its roots in reality, but just as Italian-American gangster films run a risk of stereotyping a whole community, this movie seemed unwilling to draw any line between the condition of being Nigerian and the condition of being a gangster. Given that the film’s set more than 20 years from now, it might have been nice to pick a new criminal underclass, one that might evolve from present-day conditions. Or just humanize them a bit more.

  5. The Nigerians were an unnecessary stereotype and so was the boo-hiss of corporate unpleasantness. I thought the first 45-1.00 was great too, but the action was a little too close to the globally reviled Transformers 2 which made me wonder why everyone is heaping praise on the film. It’s certainly better than most of the dreck that hits our screens, but it’s overhyped, just like IG. Did like the final shot. And it did make some good points about a morally bankrupt humanity.

  6. Although Blade Runner did it better first.

  7. My impression is that D9 isn’t as visually incoherent as T2 — the documentary style does indeed result in lots of shakicam and crash zoom reframing, but you can still tell what’s going on. Going by trailers and clips, Bay’s big robots just don’t READ. I can’t tell what’s what or who’s who.

  8. I’m going for more of T2’s action as substance and how it felt like a bit of a betrayal of the initial set-up than Bay and Blomkamp having similar styles. The latter certainly feels happier taking his finger off the edit. I will say that

  9. The worst thing about modern action cinema — OK, one of the worst things — is that it jettisons characterisation and suspends plot while fights and chases go on. Here, the anti-hero’s character arc does at least continue, and he only actually commits a heroic act right at the climax, when he puts himself in danger for someone else. So I rate that higher than Bay’s brand of nonsense.

  10. “Woe is me, prawn…”

  11. Some wag described this as Slumdog Millionaire meets Transformers.

    As Peter Bradshaw says, this film is encoded with the DNA of the SF action blockbuster but approaches it from such a fresh perspective (is it an American cultural peculiarity in film storytelling to see threat from all outsiders and immediately destroy everything in sight?) as to make it completely believable. As an SF idea it’s an old one but to see it realised with such verve and humanity is a delight. Like you I was quite moved in parts and by the end was squirming in my seat with concern over Christopher Johnson’s son (although Iwas like that with Jak Jak in The Incredibles – it’s a parent thing).

    David, yours is the first observation I’ve read to make the Quatermass connection. Nice one. Glad you enjoyed it.

  12. I made the Quatermass connection while we were watching it. (Although he’ll probably claim he had exactly the same idea just before I said it)

  13. I think you were first, dear.

    Thanks, Mike. I was fairly confident Johnson Jnr would be OK, there are some rules to this game, after all. But he was an endearing little chap alright.

  14. “Not now. Uncle Wikus is flying!”

  15. This was very enjoyable for the first forty-five minutes to an hour, and yeah, I was tickled by the resemblance to Quatermass’s Victor Caroon, skulking about as he slowly becomes a monster. The filmmakers had fun with the notion of the monstrous throughout – first we think the aliens look weird, then Wikus seems monstrous, then as he transforms he becomes more recognisably human in other ways while humanity seems pretty awful.

    I feel they should have dialled down the pure action stuff and kept the social satire/comedy coming, but that’s just me – giant robots, even ones clearly modelled on ED-209 and thus guaranteed to make me grin, tend to wear me down after a bit. Also, there was a bit too much reliance on simple plot reversals to get us thru the final stretch.

    The most fun thing here, though, is Wikus’s character – as David C points out, how often do you find a multiplex movie where the main character is an unattractive, conformist coward? Initially I was just waiting for Wikus to die in a Verhoeven-style messy incident and for a more conventional hero to step forward. But they didn’t and I am very glad, partly because Wikus continually reminded me of one of my favourite comic characters, Murray from Flight of the Conchords, embroiled in a very un-Murray metamorphosis.

  16. You said it!

    I did yearn slightly for more content during the action climax stuff, but I had enough accumulated goodwill, and the action was pretty good. And the character stayed in character, unlike in Peter Jackson’s recent stuff where everybody just becomes heroic whenever there’s action.

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