I am the walrus: A bumbling functionary gets things moving in ‘District 9’

November 15, 2012

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp spins an absorbing science fiction tale in his outstanding 2009 debut feature, District 9.

The story is centered on a pleasant, bumbling corporate drone named Wikus Van De Merwe. (His first name is pronounced “VICK-us,” I believe; I confess to having no idea how his surname should be pronounced, even though it’s spoken multiple times throughout the movie.) A mid-level manager for MNU, a multi-national corporation, Van De Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) has just won a big promotion: He will lead the effort to resettle the residents of a large slum near Johannesburg.

This being a science fiction movie, those residents are not black people but aliens. The prawns arrived in 1982 when their massive spaceship came to hover over the South African metropolis. Although it wasn’t clear why they traveled to Earth, the malnourished aliens — evidently leaderless and unable to control their vessel — were resettled in the so-called District 9. In Johannesburg circa 2010, they are looked upon by many South Africans, black and white, with roughly the same contempt that white residents of the nation visited upon black residents during its segregationist apartheid era.

Early on in the eviction effort, Van De Merwe discovers a mysterious device in one alien’s shack. Before he can bag and confiscate the item, it sprays him in the face. Within hours, his body begins changing — his fingernails fall out, he loses control of his bowels and he vomits at a party.

It soon becomes apparent that Van De Merwe is being turned into a prawn by the fluid. MNU discovers that he is capable of operating prawn weapons, something humans had previously been unable to do because the technology is inert unless used by those with alien genes. Van De Merwe is slated for vivisection.

He escapes and flees to District 9, where he begins to unravel the mystery of what is happening to him and how the changes can be reversed. In so doing, he forms an uneasy alliance with one alien — and he sets in motion a chain of portentous events.

While the film’s first two-thirds are fascinating and novel, the third act involves rather too much running and gunning. Still, District 9 earns much goodwill not only for its physical transformation of Van De Merwe but for its even more amazing transformation of his character from innocuous, self-involved mid-level manager to something and someone rather steelier.

District 9 initially takes the form of a documentary, and much of its footage is purportedly drawn from a video camera that MNU sent to accompany Van De Merwe on the first day of the eviction effort. This narrative device is dropped perhaps a third of the way into the movie but reappears at the very end; most of the rest of the picture involves footage that would be found in a standard dramatic feature film. Interestingly, I found that District 9’s ducking in and out of the documentary format was only slightly jarring.

Despite some missteps, this is an engrossing feature. It’s even more impressive for being a debut outing by Blomkamp, who co-wrote the picture with Terri Tatchell.

Blomkamp is due out with another science fiction movie called Elysium next year. (Copley, Jodie Foster and Matt Damon are set to star.) I’ll be sure to catch that.

In the meantime, movie buffs — science fiction fans or otherwise — who have yet to see District 9 will find it well worth their time.

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