Before the feature, Phong treated us to a short film, this one entitled Family Attraction and directed by Brian Hecker. It was such a popular short film that I was unable to find any stills from it on Google. (To be fair, the fact that “family attraction” brings up 200,000,000 pictures of Disneyland didn’t help matters. Not that there’s anything wrong with Disneyland.) To help give you a mental picture of it, it stars Chris Penn and features Martin Sheen in a cameo as the President. Of the U.S. A full year before West Wing started airing, so it was totally a trendsetter. Anyway, the plot revolves around a near future where one of the last nuclear families in the world is housed in a zoo of sorts. An unlocked gate (that could have been easily hopped – the thing was 3 feet high) allows Penn the patriarch to escape, and an all-out manhunt ensues. Everybody seems really worried about it (the President?), and while the patriarch is out, shall we say, enjoying the swinging single life in the nuclear-family-free zone (which really doesn’t look so terribly much different from modern society, to be honest) he is replaced by a surrogate patriarch. Eventually, he makes his way back to the zoo, forced to longingly watch his former, familiar life from the outside.
But the real attraction this week was District 9, a nifty sci-fi flick directed by Neill Blomkamp. District 9 starts out as a documentary, set in (yet another) near future in South Africa, where aliens walk among us.
Well, not quite among us. It becomes clear as the documentary unfolds that the South Africans have used their mad Apartheid skillz to keep the aliens (kindly referred to as “prawns”) from having any meaningful interaction with human society. Where did they come from? We don’t really know. What we do know is that a huge and unannounced alien ship came to a hover over Johannesburg in 1982 and just…never left.
Outside of a single item which appeared to fall off of the ship when it first arrived (which everybody in the country understood to be a command module because they read the script), the ship, it did nothing, until after who knows how long the military finally went up there and cut into it, finding something on the order of a million starving helpless humanoids.
The prawns were evacuated from the ship and put into District 9, where they were progressively isolated due to their alienness and their seeming inability to be useful. It’s kind of weird, because they’re smart enough to actually learn to read and hear English (though they seem to lack the necessary apparati to articulate in any speech outside their own language), yet they pretty much are all nothing more than violent, useless, retarded garbage eaters. So it goes.
What they do have, on top of a spaceship that doesn’t seem to do anything but float and which they don’t appear to be able to drive, is really freaking awesome weapons. Blow your ass to the sky weapons. And furthermore, these weapons are somehow DNA-coded – they are capable of recognizing that they are being held by a prawn, and will not fire if any other species (or none) is holding them. This pretty much cheeses off the big bad corporation in town, who would like nothing better than to have human-style freaking awesome weapons.
At any rate, due to their growing numbers and the society’s increasing perception of the prawns as dangerous vermin, the powers that be decide to move the prawns to a new settlement some distance from Johannesburg. The bureaucrat in charge of the eviction process is the above-pictured über-doofus Wikus van der Merwe. Wikus himself leads the first wave of eviction notices, and it becomes clear that while the prawns do leave something to be desired from an intelligence point of view, the humans aren’t really above slaughtering them like animals at the slightest provocation.
During the documentary footage of the eviction, the director begins to cut in scenes that are NOT documentary, slowly and steadily building to the point where the film has taken on the expected POV for any film of its era and left documentary behind, at least for the most part.
On the alien side, the camera begins to follow around one prawn (with the curious name of “Christopher Johnson”) and his prawn child. Christopher appears to be quite a bit more intelligent than his fellow prawns, and we soon find that he and his son have been carefully collecting a mysterious black fluid out of prawn artifacts (found throughout the shanty of District 9). Just as they have gathered enough of the fluid — which appears to act as some sort of energy source — to leave Earth, the eviction party comes through and Wikus stumbles upon the canister containing it. After accidentally spraying himself with the contents, it is confiscated as suspicious and potentially dangerous.
Bad luck for Wikus, because he shortly becomes violently ill, and it is discovered that he is slowly mutating (!) into a prawn, starting with the left arm. OK, sure, it makes no scientific sense to us, but we’re not aliens! We can’t make floating spaceships! What do we know?
Well, it turns out that because he’s mutating, the scientists discover that Wikus can now fire the alien weaponry, and he is forced to fire it upon many targets, including restrained prawns (presumably to test whether the guns will detect that they are being aimed at a prawn, and not fire. They fire.) Wikus, disgusted with his treatment and under the realization that what is left of his life will be spent as a medical experiment, manages to break out and escapes to the one place he feels he might be safe – District 9. There he meets up with Christopher Johnson, and everybody kind of figures everybody out. Johnson, for his part, lives in a shanty placed over the buried control module, and intends to leave, but he can’t without the black goo, which has been confiscated. If he can retrieve it, he says that he can heal Wikus of the progressing mutation – and of course he gets to go home.
To make a long story short, Wikus gets some alien weapons from Nigerian traders who also are encamped in District 9 (mostly selling black-market cat food to the prawns – prawns love cat food!) and he and Christopher Johnson assault the compound where the black goo is being held and retrieve it.
They get back to District 9, where an all out war starts between three sides – Wikus and Johnson, the South Africans, and the Nigerians (I didn’t say that the obtaining of the weapons went smoothly, did I?). In the course of this battle, Wikus gets the privilege of hopping into a mechanized alien robot thingy, which he can control because, of course, he has prawn DNA.
Well, it’s not easy, and it’s all dramatic and stuff, but eventually Christopher Johnson and his son get to leave, while Wikus in hiding awaits CJ’s promised return in the hopes that someday he can be a real boy again.
All in all it was a pretty good movie – very well directed (despite having the requisite action film blow-everything-up scenes) and mostly thoughtful. Perhaps the best aspect of the film is the filmmakers’ decision to not explain everything. Why did the prawns come to Earth in the first place? Why were they starving? Why were all of them but Christopher Johnson and his child mindless proles? We just don’t know, and if anything District 9 might be a better movie for it.