One genre of film that has been poorly represented over the years as far as the Oscar nominations go is sci-fi. If a science fiction movie does edge its way into the Best Picture field than it’s usually a big budget affair like Star Wars or Avatar. So imagine my surprise when a small budget science fiction film from South Africa was given a Best Picture nod at the same ceremony that saw James Cameron’s blue creatures attempt to take the prize.
The film District 9 was definitely a sleeper hit that achieved popularity partially due to the fact that it had been championed by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. District 9’s director Neil Blomkamp had first touted the film in 2005, producing a shorter version of the movie entitled ‘Alive in Joburg’. It then took four years for Blompkamp’s full feature to make it to the screens and gradually build a large audience. District 9 takes place in an alternative South Africa where crustacean-like aliens had invaded twenty-five years earlier. Due to the fact that the aliens and humans began fighting with one another, the former group were moved into a ramshackle settlement known as District 9. The hero of the piece is middle-management goon Wikus van de Merwe who is tasked with evicting the residents of District 9 and taking them to a newly constructed district. However Wikus accidentally finds himself being exposed to a dark mixture which infuses his genetics with that of the aliens. As the film goes on, Wikus finds himself ostracised by his family whilst the company he works for wants to use him as a science experiment. Wikus eventually has to retreat to District 9 where he hunts down the intelligent alien Christopher whose liquid changed him in the first place. From there District 9 becomes a tense action film as Christopher and Wikus work together in order to get the former back to his home planet and the latter transformed back into his fully human form.
When I first watched District 9 I genuinely didn’t know what to expect and so I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. Blompkamp’s film touches on themes of xenophobia with District 9 being an approximation of the all-white District 6 which was in force during South Africa’s Apartheid. I personally feel as if all sci-fi should have some sort of basis in reality and the message that District 9 gives about ostracising people who are different is brilliantly played out. The racism also extends to the fact that the humans refer to the aliens as ‘prawns’ which is used as a derogatory term that becomes more nasty each time it’s heard. What I liked about District 9 was its distinctive look with the titular ghetto of the title being well-designed by Blomkamp and his team. The faux documentary style also allows for the plot to be explained without it becoming overly-expositional. Cinematographer Trent Opaloch perfectly transitioned between the documentary-like style and the more traditional shots which focused on Wikus’ trials in District 9.
In the lead role of Wikus, Sharlto Copley shines in what was his first film role ans an actor. A friend of Blomkamp’s, Copley ideally fits into the role of the everyman in an extraordinary situation. It’s because of his lack of experience that Copley is able to make Wikus feel like a believable protagonist and he makes us sympathise with him more as he starts to transform into a prawn. If there’s one criticism I have of District 9 then it’s in its final third when it basically descends into a more traditional sci-fi action film. That being said the ending was well done and the ambiguity of the finale suggested that a sequel may be coming at some point. District 9 is another example of the recurring theme we’re seeing in the most recent nominees as the Academy now seems to be searching outside of the mainstream. Whilst it had its champions, District 9 would never have been nominated alongside the costume dramas and inspirational true stories of old. It’s just a shame that there haven’t been more examples of films like District 9 that have found favour with the academy and I’m hoping that we’ll soon get another example of Oscar’s searching outside of the box for its Best Picture nominees.