Neill Blomkamp revisited: District 9

District 9
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Our exploration of Neill Blomkamp’s movies begins with his 2009 feature debut: the violent yet intelligent sci-fi action of District 9.

Science fiction at its best is brave. It speaks to the human condition, using allegory and symbolism to make us feel and understand the world in which we live now. District 9 is among the finest modern examples of that. It is often raw, intentionally chaotic, but retains at the core a deep well of humanity.

In 2006, South African director Neill Blomkamp made a six-minute short film called Alive In Joberg that would form the basis of District 9. So too would his first short, the two minute Tetra Vaal from 2004, revolving around a police robot that patrols Johannesburg. He displayed a fascination with the fusion of biology and technology that is even more visible in his second short, which establishes a South African city where alien interlopers clash with humans in apartheid-era slums.

Alive In Joberg displayed a rough version of the style Blomkamp later evolved in District 9. It combines found footage camera work, news reports and talking heads to show a fragment of the scenario District 9 would later explore. The short film also features Sharlto Copley, later to play District 9’s energetic protagonist Wikus van der Merwe, who also produces, and here plays a similar character. He and Blomkamp were childhood prodigies to an extent, friends since working together at a computer graphics company while still in their teens.

Blomkamp told MTV the journey he was on at the time:

I was directing commercials. But in between commercials, I did these crazy short films to just mess around with ideas. And I had an idea to just put Western sci-fi I’d grown up with into a South African setting. That’s what Alive in Joburg was. When it came time to turn that into a feature film, the first thing we had to do was flesh out the world of District 9 and, from there, you could decide what POV you wanted to tell the story from.

Blomkamp had what could be seen as a significant helping hand as he worked to turn Alive In Joberg into a feature. Australian director Peter Jackson, by this point famous for The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, was trying to bring the popular sci-fi videogame Halo to the big screen as a producer, and chose Blomkamp to make it. What would have been a striking debut for a rookie first time director, after months of prep, failed to materialise – Halo would remain in development hell for another decade plus, before surfacing as a rather bland series on Paramount+ in 2022.

Jackson, however, sought to work alongside wife Fran Walsh and producing partner Phillipa Boyens with Blomkamp, and decided to produce the big screen version of Alive In Joberg, though Blomkamp has denied there was deliberate crossover between his plans for Halo and the film he ended up making. The film does, nonetheless, feature certain props and designs developed for Halo, to be wielded no doubt by Master Chief, the game’s armoured hero. You can see how Blomkamp brought together Tetra Vaal, Alive In Joberg and those unused designs for the alien mech Wikus uses in the final act.

Blomkamp and wife Terri Tatchell’s script engages contains some complex social and political themes, combining his fascination with computer graphics and technology with the climate he grew up with in apartheid-era South Africa. In 1966, a residential area of Cape Town was labelled ‘District Six’ and declared a ‘white’s only’ area, with 60,000 people forcibly relocated  –  which is what the MNU (Multi National Corporation) do to the aliens in District 9. Many such forced removals saw people transported to ghettos of the like we see in the movie.

He discussed with how he didn’t want the allegory to dominate his film:

I definitely actively tried to not beat the audience over the head with it. And rather, take all of the elements about South Africa that interest me, and the real racial history, as well as the black-on-black xenophobic stuff that’s been happening since all of the Zimbabwe immigrants have been coming into the country. And I incorporated that, also. So really, I just used all of the elements of South Africa that make it South Africa. It was meant to incorporate all of the elements that make up South Africa’s background, but in a subtle sort of fabric in the movie. And the personal story is in the foreground.

The personal story revolves around Wikus and alien protagonist Christopher Johnson, both of whom allow Blomkamp to explore his alternate future world (the aliens having arrived in 1982) from different angles. Wikus begins as a company man, a cheery and naive bureaucrat, filled with the built-in casual xenophobia most humans display, promoted via nepotism thanks to his amoral MNU father in law, Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar, very much a South African Alan Dale here), as a pawn in the MNU’s darker ambitions. Copley plays Wikus with a lightness, but he is far from likeable as cameras follow him serving illegal eviction notices to aliens who barely even understand what’s happening.

Credit: Sony Pictures.

Christopher, in contrast, is the dignified heart of the film. He suffers a great deal, first watching his friend (and in many ways the fellow parent of his child), gunned down callously (later even seeing he has been victim to inhumane experimentation), and being placed in a position where he’s forced into extreme actions. Even his name is racist – a human denomination almost forced on him. I found it intriguing, actually, that Blomkamp gives humans the capacity to understand the aliens even as they speak in a clicking, insectoid tongue, and are understood via subtitles. It suggests their integration over decades has been total, even while they’re barely classed as citizens.

(Incidentally, on a visual level, the aliens remain a stunning CGI creation, with little having dated them over a decade on.)

The biggest aspect core to District 9 is dehumanisation. The aliens are unnamed throughout, but even on arrival, with their system of government and command having broken down in what appears to be a colony ship, they live in squalid conditions. t, Christopher Johnson tells his son, “We can’t go home. Not anymore,” suggesting they were seeking a new home as a society, perhaps due to their world growing uninhabitable.

Once brought down to Earth by the South African government, the aliens are thrown into slums. Humans immediately brand them with a derogatory name, ‘prawns’, by virtue of their insectoid appearance. It’s exactly the form of racism Blomkamp seeks to explore. Swap prawn for ‘illegal’, ‘black’, ‘Jew’ etc… and the subtext is even clearer.

What Blomkamp’s script cleverly does, however, is work to dehumanise Wikus too, after he’s infected by alien spores which steadily begin transform him into a ‘prawn’. Here we see a Blomkamp obsession  –  the fusion of biology and technology. A similar conjoining happens to Matt Damon’s Max in Elysium, we see the influence of human brain patterns on the titular robot Chappie in the same film, and even in Gran Turismo, a key aspect of Jann is that he transposes racing skill honed on a computer into a physical machine. As a director, he’s fascinated by such evolution, even if ultimately in the darkest of his narratives it either kills or utterly consumes his protagonists.

Credit: Sony Pictures.

Wikus, in becoming a ‘prawn’, oddly enough ends up gaining a greater sense of humanity as he comes to understand their plight, and sees the heinous actions of MNU up close. They kill, torture and split apart the aliens without care in trying to unlock their biological attachment to powerful alien weaponry they want to exploit. Piet is prepared to sacrifice his son-in-law for it, and callously lies to Wikus’ wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood), all while the MNU confect stories of Wikus making pornography with aliens to destroy his marriage and his reputation. Once Wikus starts to relate to Christopher and the aliens, he becomes a pariah.

The symbolism is certainly clear, even if Blomkamp works to keep it in the background. Wikus biologically goes native and as a result is racially abused by a powerful white society (typified in the MNU) who don’t want anyone who doesn’t look or sound like them living next door. District 9 might be a sci-fi play on apartheid, but it now holds extra resonance as economically battered, populist western governments lean further right to blame immigrants for the ills of society. Blomkamp certainly recognises this in many of his films, with sinister corporations (MNU or TetraVaal in Chappie, so named after his short film) or governments (see Elysium) working to class-based agendas, exploiting technology to improve their stock prices.

Despite these heavy themes, District 9 remains both darkly comedic and shot through with a sense of action and adventure, with Blomkamp clearly revering pumped-up cinema such as Aliens as much as body horror akin to David Cronenberg’s The Fly. There’s even a bit of Amblin DNA with Christopher and his son. Blomkamp wants the audience to get swept up and have a good time. District 9 ends up a furious blend of documentary-style shooting, talking heads, closed-circuit cameras, and pure action theatrics that feels authentically South African, while built on the trapping of western cinema.

It remains, to date, unquestionably his best film, the one that both dials into his thematic and visual interests while holding true to an emotional core. That said, Blomkamp’s subsequent efforts extend these ideas in intriguing ways, as Hollywood comes calling, and he struggles to retain the essence of Alive In Joberg on a far bigger canvas.

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