Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Sharlto Copley plays Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling corporate man who oversees the eviction of aliens from their shantytown.
Sharlto Copley plays Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling corporate man who oversees the eviction of aliens from their shantytown.
Sharlto Copley plays Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling corporate man who oversees the eviction of aliens from their shantytown.

District 9

Beyond the quirky story and gory "splatstick", District 9 is a touching tale about one man's journey to empathy.

Long before knighthood, Oscar victories and hobbits took Sir Peter Jackson into Hollywood's A-list, his lesser-known cinematic origins were as a splatter movie maestro. And when you watch the latest bad guy explode into a ball of gore in District 9, you can't help thinking that when Jackson decided to produce the first-time director Neill Blomkamp's quirky science fiction tale, he was harking back to the mid-1980s, when he and his friends spent their weekends working on a movie about aliens invading New Zealand to harvest humans for their intergalactic fast food franchise.

To be sure, District 9 is a much, much more polished product than Bad Taste, Jackson's appositely titled 1987 feature debut. Jackson took four years to make the film, serving as producer, director, screenwriter and cinematographer. He starred in two roles, and he created the masks worn by the aliens (he baked them in his mum's oven). But the excess of enthusiasm and imagination over experience and the constraints of conventionality are the same. (Who knows what Jackson's debut would have turned out like if he had had a Hollywood A-lister backing him and urging him, as he told Blomkamp, not to restrain his ideas.)

In District 9, a mammoth spaceship has drifted to a halt over Johannesburg. The occupants, a million extraterrestrials known derisively as "prawns", have been contained inside a fortified shantytown and treated like second-class citizens. More than 25 years later, the camp is teeming and the authorities are aiming to shift them 200km away to another camp. Enter Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling and gormless corporate bureaucrat for the shadowy military corporate MNU, which has landed him the job of overseeing the eviction.

The apartheid allegories are too obvious to avoid, but that is not really where the essence of District 9 lies. Instead it's about Wikus's personal journey from a company man who unthinkingly pursues the conscienceless corporate goals, to someone who empathises with the aliens, which he begins to morph into after being contaminated during the eviction. That's not to say it's a primarily cerebral movie. Shot in a faux documentary mode, it relies heavily on hand-held cameras and security camera-style footage. The story quickly becomes a three-way battle among Wikus and the aliens, the unprincipled managers of MNU and a gang of Nigerians that runs the camp.

Beneath it all lies the filmmakers' passion and enthusiasm, unbridled by the typical cinema-industry accoutrements of accountants, marketers and focus groups. It's this energy, more than the entertaining premise for the story or the impressive computer-generated effects, that makes District 9 a success. Just like Bad Taste and Jackson's similar third movie, Braindead, District 9 incorporates an excessive amount of gore for comedic effect, a technique that has been dubbed "splatstick". It is impossible to count the number of times that the camera lens and actors' faces are splattered with blood and flesh.

Unlike in Bad Taste, where in one scene low-tech trick photography is used to depict a fight between the two characters that Jackson played, District 9 has the full repertoire of modern special effects. In another link between the two directors, the aliens were designed by the Wellington-based Weta Workshop, which originated in Jackson's early splatterfests and has grown to be part of the team that rendered Avatar from theory into cinematic reality.

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Hajer Almosleh, the winner of the last year's short story competition, at her home in Dubai. Duncan Chard for the National

Get involved with The National’s short-story competition

Writers have two weeks to craft a winning submission, under the title and theme "The Turning Point".

 It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

Could the force be with us? The search for Star Wars truth

On the hunt for the Star Wars: Episode VII set, which a growing number of people are sure is in Abu Dhabi, but no one can seem to find.

 With an estimated 18,000 comic and film fans having already paid a visit to this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con, organisers are hopeful they will have surpassed last year total, of 21,000, by its close. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

In pictures: Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai

Dubai's World Trade Center was awash with people visiting this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con. Here's some of our best pictures.

 Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, presents Quincy Jones with the Abu Dhabi Festival Award as the Admaf founder Hoda Al Khamis-Kanoo applauds. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival.

A candid talk with Quincy Jones about the UAE, Lil Wayne and the Abu Dhabi Festival award

The Abu Dhabi Festival honoree Quincy Jones discusses his legendary career as a music producer, the return of Dubai Music Week and why he can’t handle the rapper Lil Wayne.

 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge arrive at Wellington Military Terminal on an RNZAF 757 from Sydney on April 7, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Chris Jackson / Getty Images

In pictures: Will and Kate visit Australia and New Zealand

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge are on a tour Down Under for three weeks.

 A protester gives a victory sign during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Street life: humanity’s future depends on ability to negotiate and sustain public space

Negotiating our ever more crowded cities and maintaining vibrant public spaces are among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National