South Africa has been in the Hollywood spotlight these past few weeks thanks to the critical and box office success of District 9, the first big-budget, sci-fi film to take place in the City of Gold itself.
The premise? Our planet’s first contact with alien life doesn’t happen in the usual blockbuster venues (namely, anywhere in the United States) but rather in our very own Johannesburg. A massive construct appears stranded in the skies above Jozi, after which its alien residents fail to be integrated into South African society.
Placed into what is essentially a squatter camp on the borders of Joburg, known as District 9, the aliens face xenophobic and racist (specist?) treatment by the population in general. A private military organisation, Multi-National United (MNU) is then hired by the government to move the aliens further away from the city.
The first third of the film focuses on the interaction between South Africa, the MNU and the ‘prawns’ (the aliens adopted name), but eventually shifts focus to the every-man character, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), as he is forced to become a fugitive after coming into contact with a strange, alien liquid.
The film is by far the most grandiose local project that South Africa has seen, and manages to compete with, and even surpass, recent action block-busters such as Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe. Even better, unlike the recent Michael Bay movies, which tend to be filmed by camera-men with ADHD, the action sequences are frenetic, exciting and easy to follow. As far as pop-corn flicks go, ‘awesome’ is the word that springs to mind.
Some comedy in the midst of the action also helps to break up the tension, with some particularly hilarious scenes in the film’s introductory segments, which are filmed in documentary-style and feature some great ‘home-grown’ opinions on the ‘prawns’.
The special effects are also top-notch, and suspending disbelief is certainly no issue. The aliens, whose disturbing design will eventually grow on you, are fluidly animated and are as realistic as prawn-like monsters could be. Seeing an alien running through the middle of Braamfontein will most likely tickle local viewers, and the familiarity of the Joburg setting is one of the film’s best aspects.
But it’s not merely the setting that’s familiar. Loads of well-known South African actors have cameo appearances throughout, and barely a few minutes will go by without noticing an Isidingo or Tsotsi actor popping up on-screen. Due to the film’s international success, hopefully some of these guys will move onto bigger and better things.
However, despite all of these winks to the South African audience, the film does suffer from a few minor, but important flaws. Firstly, the apartheid and recent xenophobia metaphors are obvious to the extreme, and essentially shoved in your face for the first hour of the film. However, instead of exploring this potentially fascinating topic, the director (South African-born Neill Blomkamp) clearly chose to focus on the action, and most of the allegory is forgotten by the time we see the first explosion.
The main character’s motivation and personality remains constant throughout the film, he’s fairly unlikeable, but not enough for the audience to want him to fail in his mission. However, at the end of the film, he makes a choice that is completely contrary to the personality he’s been exhibiting. His change of heart towards an alien character is simply too sudden and seems an afterthought. Despite this, the actor playing Wikus, Sharlto Copley, does a great job overall and we can only blame the script-writer for such a strange turn of events.
Lastly, a race issue also arises. For such a quintessentially South African film that questions the apartheid mentality, I was very surprised to note the lack of black main characters. It’s an odd over-sight, with the only black character that actually makes an impact on the story being a cannibalistic, crazed Nigerian slumlord. Even the grotesque looking aliens receive sympathetic portrayals, so the question arises: Are international film audiences expected to relate more to computer generated aliens than to black people?
However, these flaws are simply minor speed-bumps on the epic journey known as District 9, and with the rave reviews coming in from around the globe, South Africa should receive some much needed media attention. Let’s just hope that foreigners don’t assume that we’re nothing but squatter camps and gung-ho Afrikaans white folk with funny accents.
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