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'District 9': Playing spot the reference, and checking out Neill Blomkamp's roots

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We live in an era of cut-and-paste, mix-and-match, sample-and-recontextualize pop culture. Just because a movie is blazingly original doesn’t mean that it has to be shy about what it borrows from the past. Quentin Tarantino is the unapologetic king of recombinant pop — the auteur as mix-master. And in District 9, the aliens-as-dispossessed-refugees sci-fi thriller that has already struck a huge chord with audiences, director Neill Blomkamp wears his influences lightly but proudly. What makes the movie mean something is that, like Kill Bill or The Matrix, it doesn’t feel like the sources it recalls; it doesn’t feel like any other movie you’ve seen. That said, when you watch District 9, it’s almost impossible to resist playing Spot the Reference/Influence/Allusion/Homage. I’ve listed half a dozen of the obvious ones. How many more can you find?

Alien Nation. The benign and cultish 1988 sci-fi movie, which was turned into a TV series just a year later, featured a race of extraterrestrial visitors who looked like friendly, wigless department-store mannequins with their brains worn on the outside. A far cry from D9‘s dreadlock-faced Praying Mantisoid thingies, to be sure — but the film highlighted the concept of aliens as entrenched outsiders living as second-class citizens, as the other, within human society.

Independence Day. The best thing in ID4 was always the image of those city-sized alien spaceships just sitting there, hovering, full of threat. Blomkamp picks up that image and re-invents it, indelibly, by shooting it with grainy newsreel video, so that instead of coming off as a wow-the-audience “movie” effect, it looks like something that’s actually happening right in front of your eyes.

Starship Troopers. A lot of people would say that comparing District 9 to Paul Verhoeven’s infamous Beverly Hills 90210-meets-the-spiders-from-Mars thriller is an insult. Not me. (Check out my original, unashamed B+ review.) The thing is, it’s really a comparison of tone: D9 is a far better movie, but its first 45 minutes or so does have that same relentless, alien-splatter, video-game turkey-shoot quality.

The Fly. I don’t want to give too much away, but when something…happens to the clownish bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), he goes on a journey that can’t help but recall that of Jeff Goldblum in the 1986 David Cronenberg bio-shocker. Here, too, our hero finds his humanity the more literally that he (or, at least, his body) strays from it.

RoboCop. If you check out Blomkamp’s previous work (I’ve linked to it just below), you’ll see that RoboCop appears to be more or less his formative text. Now there’s a Paul Verhoeven movie that’s truly worth emulating (to me, it remains his best), and you can see its influence in the scenes where Wikus climbs inside, operates, and all but fuses with that walking killer auto-gun robot. Like Peter Weller’s RoboCop, he becomes a haunting and even poignant man-machine.

Enemy Mine. Though Alien Nation, too, was a human/extraterrestrial buddy movie, I think it’s this one — with Lou Gossett Jr. as a gruff-voiced, scaly-faced alien and Dennis Quaid as the human space traveler who bonds with him — that infuses the final section of D9.

So are there other films you can think of that shadow District 9?

For inspiration, I highly recommend that you check out these fascinating short films and commercials that Neill Blomkamp directed as a run-up to his first feature. They include “Alive in Joburg” (the 6-and-a-half-minute short out of which D9 sprung) and his great Nike Evolution spot.

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