In the novel Disgrace, a privileged white South African is systematically destroyed for transgressing cultural boundaries (and for being a racist, chauvinist dinosaur). The novel was written by privileged white South African Nobel Prize in Literature winner J.M. Coetzee. As ever with Coetzee, the moral of the story is ambiguous. Although the white guy is a supercilious prick, many of his antagonists are, similarly, prickly. Coetzee creates a picture of South African society which is congenitally violent, enthralled by deviant sex, and fond of ostracism. The movie, District 9, is basically the same story, with freaky aliens, a big black robot, and lots and lots of guns.
A huge alien spaceship hovers over Johannesburg. The aliens themselves landed twenty years ago. They look like walking prawns. After token efforts at integration failed, the humans decided to ghettoise the aliens. The result was District 9, an alien Soweto. Government legislation, perhaps hankering after a new apartheid, forbids the aliens from owning property or associating with humans. They are policed by a private military corporation called Multinational United. On the day our story begins, MNU is tasked with emptying the ghetto to make way for District 10. It’s going to be a very bad day for MNU underling Wikus van de Merwe.
As I say, it’s Disgrace, with aliens. Only, instead of having an affair with a younger woman, Wikus accidentally ingests alien space-fuel. And, instead of retreating to his daughter’s farm in the Eastern Cape, his right arm turns into a giant lobster claw and he blows the crap out of some xenophobic mercenaries. I have a hunch (albeit sarcastic) J.M. Coetzee would like these developments. They aren’t exactly in the spirit of his novel’s elegiac humility, but they’re f—ing exciting to watch. As Wikus is brutally ostracized from his society, there’s a very Coetzee-an feel to the plight. He doesn’t deserve our sympathy; he earns it, as he pukes ink and sees his fingernails fall out. His is a cathartic journey, much like the literature professor in Disgrace. It’s just that Wikus finds catharsis by turning into a walking prawn.
Native South African Sharlto Copley plays Wikus as an office drone, but he can’t help being South African too. There’s something about white guys from South Africa that radiates confidence, and brio. Even if you’re a white South African nerd, choked with guilt for the sins of your white forebears, you can’t help acting cock of the walk. If Wikus was British he’d be a snivelling, weak-kneed, civil servant-type. But since he’s South African, and being played by a South African, the manly spirit of Africa is present even in his tank top. This helps when he starts blasting MNU goons with alien weaponry, in a way it wouldn’t if Wikus was played by Hugh Grant.
Director Neil Blomkamp’s great success, besides casting Copley, is to surround his star with a fictional world that seems real. Using the same found-footage technique that helped convince the audience in Cloverfield, Blomkamp presents his story as half The Fly and half fly-on-the-wall documentary. Unlike Cloverfield’s director (Matt Reeves), however, Blomkamp realises that the I’ll-just-keep-the-camera-running trick gets nonsensical at times, so he’s never afraid to abandon the documentary format when he wants to root you in a scene. The finished movie is the fastest, wildest, most heavily-armed racial segregation parable you can imagine.
J.M. Coetzee would probably not wish to be associated with District 9, or any movie about cat food-eating aliens. And it’s true, District 9 is not (unlike Disgrace), a deft autopsy of white South African conceit. District 9 is more interested in alien autopsies, and giant robots, and what happens when aliens kick ass using giant robots. It doesn’t want to probe the white South African psyche, so much as splatter white South African guts. And ok, no-one’s going to award this movie a Nobel Prize. But that’s not to say it isn’t fun. District 9 is what would’ve happened if the A.N.C. had directed Robocop. There’s good reason it feels so right when the racist villains get pulped.