Friday, September 25, 2009

South African Review of District 9 - The Sci-Fi Hit

You've probably heard about this fascinating new Sci-Fi movie set in Johannesburg. But you've probably been waiting for a review by a South African.

So here it is - and whatever you do - you will have to go to the movies to catch this one!

Aliens in Africa Make the Worlds Come Together
A Review of the Sci-Fi movie by Alan Brody

Who'd have thought the no. 1 box office movie started as a "mockumentary" from 2005 and posted on YouTube, of a UFO landing in Johannesburg, South Africa - circa 1982 - at the height of apartheid. In many ways this is a wild movie - like nothing you've seen before. Real, uncomfortable and deeply interesting. This is today's Blair Witch Project but only bigger, better and more exotic. More technology too.

Neill Blomkamp is the director and co-creator and it is produced by the man who brought us The Ring.

For South Africans this is having déjà vu but this time as a kind of weird comedy verite. You're seeing what apartheid really looked like back in the day - but instead of the Africans being treated like animals, the mostly white strike force of the movie - who look a whole lot like South African Police from the apartheid days are treating aliens that way. Only here, the aliens look like giant shrimp with legs.

In much the same way Art Spiegelman's Maus made the Nazis and Jews of the holocaust seem more real as rats and mice respectively, this makes the once oppressive world of apartheid seem more vivid.

This time, the chief enforcer is no Schwartzenegger, instead, he is an efficient, mild-mannered bureaucrat from like Steve Carrol mold in The Office.

For some reason he is the only one videotaping his mission to displace the aliens to a new camp. Unlike your typical higher civilization though, these aliens are a mixed bag. A million of them washed up in a dilapidated spacecraft above the country's largest city -poor, destitute. Forget E.T. meet galaxy trash. They speak something that sounds like Xhosa played through a vacuum cleaner. They have a madness for cat food and are willing to sell whatever technology they have. But we can't use it for reasons of interplanetary DNA.

Watching all this UFO stuff go on with heavy South African is a riot. When Wilkus tells an alien to "Voetsek" any South African in the audience has to laugh convulsively.

So is this an allegory? Do we have a subtext here? Could these aliens represent a new kind of force, like say, the Chinese who are becoming highly influential in Africa?

To Americans - this is just strange stuff . A new, gritty kind of sci-fi flick. Something like Mad Max meets Office Max.

But somewhere along the way you are getting a cultural lesson. The whites are venal and somewhat bumbling but they get along with the local Africans. You could say aliens unite everyone against them. Except that is, for the Nigerians - they run the show when it comes to dealing with aliens - and they given to extreme violence and primitivism.

Life gets more interesting when the various races merge with the aliens. That is no mere sci-fi for South Africans; this is a headscratcher within a sci-fi flick because miscegenism was a very big deal back in those days. Since all reproduction here is by way of pathogenesis, this is arguably a family film. However, it is not a chick flick, so check with the girls first. They might just prefer to spend the afternoon with Lindsey Lohan. From a tourism point of view, it cements Johannesburg's image, begun with Tsotse, as the township capital of the universe - even though the city itself looks crudely interesting with its blockish skyscrapers etched against a dry, sun-drenched sky.

There are a number of loose ends in the story, but the experience of Johannesburg set to this strange world with a giant space ship hovering over downtown (somehow this missed the world news at the time, but Wilkus, the hero gets to make it his personal videotape) is just too exquisite for the ex-pats to not want to see..

I'd have to say the experience could make you want to reach out for some African music and a cool one - but that antidote will have wait for a different kind of South African movie. In the meantime sit back and watch a not-distant place and time of Africa become box office interest no. 1. In this galaxy, that is.

Alan is the author of White Shaka Boy

Volume 2 of
White Shaka Boy launched at Brooklyn Book Fair - Sep. 13.

Vote for the soundtrack songs on the Fame Game

Episode 2 of the award-winning online visual book, White Shaka Boy goes online today.

The soundtrack, the English and Zulu song "Umile" reached no. 2 on the R&B charts of the international independent music site Overplay.