What the hell is District 9?

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You might have seen the adverts, visited the website or even been tempted to phone the mysterious information line. But, asks Tom Huddleston, what is ‘District 9’? And will this heavy duty marketing campaign actually sell tickets?

You’ll have seen the posters by now: the silhouetted form of an alien emblazoned with a giant red X, above the stark warning ‘For Humans Only! Non-Humans Banned!’ You might have seen the trailers, featuring the interrogation of a slimy, confused-looking beast, his face blurred to prevent identification. The committed nerds among you may even have delved into some of the weirder promotional content: the telephone hotline to report alien sightings, the disturbing, minimalist website dedicated to crypto-fascist corporation MNU, where a bland female voice heralds a new age of pioneering scientific discovery, or the blog set up by freedom-loving alien ‘prawns’ featuring footage of illegal experimentation and calls for ‘equal rights for non-humans!’

Best of all is the official website, www.D-9.com, which is separated into human and non-human areas. The human site is friendly and welcoming, connecting to a map of the city and street interviews in which the outraged people of Johannesburg complain about the alien menace on their doorstep. The non-human site, on the other hand, is harsh and commanding, demanding access codes for much of the content: type ‘labor’ for a list of career opportunities, including ‘non-human dental hygienist’.

Such viral marketing is nothing new: last year’s ‘Cloverfield’ raised the bar for this sort of thing, and reaped multi-million dollar rewards. Like that movie, ‘District 9’ is a genre work from an unknown director, backed up by the full weight of a household name producer (in this case Peter Jackson), attempting to subvert the ordinary promotional channels and connect directly with its audience. The approach seems to be working: on its opening weekend in the US ‘District 9’ shot to the top of the box office, and looks set to become one of this summer’s few bona fide successes.

So what is ‘District 9’? In the movie it’s an internment camp, a sprawling slum on the outskirts of Johannesburg populated by ‘prawns’, alien refugees who arrived on Earth two decades ago and, for reasons unknown, chose South Africa as their place of residence. We follow two days in the life of company stooge Wikus Van der Merwe, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley as a sort of skinny, self-conscious South African David Brent. Wikus is charged with attempting to convince the population of District 9 to quietly pack up their belongings and move to a new camp out in the bush, miles from human contact. Needless to say, the big move doesn’t go precisely as planned.

The film is the brainchild of South African-born commercials director Neill Blomkamp, whose self-financed short film ‘Alive in Jo’Burg’ caught Jackson’s eye when he was on the lookout for a talented director to helm his upcoming ‘Halo’ adaptation. That movie lapsed into development limbo, so Blomkamp and Jackson went back to the source, expanding ‘Alive in Jo’Burg’’s tale of alien immigrants to feature length. They kept the Johannesburg setting and all the symbolic baggage that that carries, and added a whole heap of new ideas about corporate greed, xenophobic profiling, illegal immigration and giant alien weapons that go ‘boom’.

The South African location is clearly important to Blomkamp, despite his having relocated to Vancouver at the age of 18. He grew up with Apartheid , a system which, in the world of ‘District 9’, still holds sway. Wikus, the central character, stands for all those white South Africans who resisted integration: his surname, ‘Van der Merwe’, belongs to the generic butt of many Afrikaans jokes, while the film’s title refers to the infamous District 6 in Cape Town, from which over 60,000 black inhabitants were forcibly removed in the 1970s. In fusing socio-political principles with a strong sci-fi concept, Blomkamp gives his film an ideological thrust that’s been largely absent from the last two decades of genre cinema.

But the most remarkable aspect of ‘District 9’ may prove to be that striking viral campaign, proving once and for all how important the internet has become as an advertising tool. Sci-fi nerds and web-savvy conspiracy geeks have now become the front line of audience contact, relied upon to discover and disseminate unusual content to the wider public. For now, such methods can only work for genre films: it’s hard to see a viral campaign working for a film like ‘Coco Before Chanel’, for example (design your own ballgown?), but for a select group of films, this seems to be a failsafe method of sparking interest: of course it helps if, like ‘District 9’, the end product is worth the anticipation.

www.timeout.com/film

Author: Tom Huddleston



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