District 9 is one of those rare science fiction films that can sneak into the Best Picture category. It is here because the film is so much more than an alien flick, but evokes a powerful sense of drama about humanity and discrimination while using a wide variety of narrative techniques.
Two decades back, an alien spacecraft descended over Johannesburg, South Africa with a healthy population of aliens inside. The spacecraft has not moved since and the aliens, referred to as Prawns because of their crustacean attributes, have been contained by the government into refugee camps that have deteriorated into slums called District 9. When Multi-National United decides to launch an operation to evict all the aliens, the man leading the operation, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), comes in contact with a bio-chemical substance that slowly transforms him into an alien. His service and loyalties to MNU are disregarded as he becomes hunted to become a test subject for his new alien powers, mostly being able to use their advanced weapons. The only chance for escape and survival are within District 9, where one alien and his son have been preparing to leave Earth.
Many science fiction films require some sort of prologue so the viewer can understand the alien situation at hand. By making District 9 look like a documentary film, it’s more acceptable for all of this setup to be thoroughly explained. Between interviews, old news “footage” and a variety of surveillance cameras, the whole film, especially the beginning, is very quick and informative, but does not lose us for a moment.
All these different camera techniques evoke a great sense of realism that can be difficult to achieve well in a science fiction film. Gritty news and documentary footage gives the viewer a false sense of authority about the situations shown, while the use of typical narrative techniques bring us closer to the characters and emotional story as well. Never in the film did I feel an awkward jump from one media to the next. Editing these multiple camera techniques together so that they flow seamlessly is quite a feat, I honestly wish District 9 had won that Oscar.
The way Wikus acts when he knows he is on camera makes us think that he is not an actor. During interviews he’s nervous, fidgety and a little goofy knowing he is in a spotlight. On location in District 9, he tries to keep this air of an informative performer for the camera until his contact with the alien substance. It’s hard to fake a smile when your body has entered fight-or-flight mode and you’re puking a black liquid. Soon, his documentary personality is gone and we believe we are really watching a man deal with the horrors of turning into an alien. Between the way Wikus talks straight to us for the documentary and watching his painful descent into an alien body that pushes him out of society, we form a real connection to him and become one of the few who have sympathy for him
I’ve seen District 9 three times now, and each time has been a totally engrossing experience. The realism, violence and camera-splattering gore still makes me gasp in the most wonderful ways. There are very few films of the twenty-first century that I can enjoy as much as District 9. Any documentary style or science-fiction film needs to look back at this film’s brilliant techniques and narrative style.
“He was an honest man, and he didn’t deserve any of what happened to him.”