District 9 | Rated R | starring Sharlto Copley | 1:52 mins
Everything feels fresh and exciting in first-time filmmaker Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi thriller “District 9”. The film is a delicious cobbling of two seemingly at-odds genres: a smart, focused independent faux-documentary then breaks out and aspires to be a special effects showcasing big Hollywood action flick. The movie has a boys-and-their-toys sandbox quality to it, a filmmaker with an impish imagination let loose to realize our childhood dreams of aliens, big mechs and laser guns. It exists in a universe parallel to ours, where aliens live among us and, given how little we really know about them, anything can happen. As is a hallmark of great science fiction, the universe of the film is a socially conscious analogy to our own world.
The movie opens with interviews explaining the history of the last 20 years, where a disabled alien space craft sputtered to a stop over Johannesburg, Africa and it’s occupants – aliens that look like crawfish or “Prawns” (as is the derogatory term) – are quickly quarantined due to an interstellar xenophobic fear from the people and government. The scope of this section is huge and Blomkamp beats it along just right using the exposition to build tension and establish the inspired rules of his universe and the aliens. All of which will be uprooted by the mid-point. Well, now the alien quarantine has become a slum and that slum has breed crime and the MNU (Multi National United, a typical movie mega company specializing in weapons of course) tasked with maintaining said District 9 will now be uprooting the aliens and moving them to their “new home” in District 10. The evictions are led by Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) a weaselly little beauracrat who affectionately reminded me of Murrey from Flight of the Conchords. During the evictions Wikus is exposed to the alien biotechnology which sets off a chain of events that will change our self-absorbed pencil pusher into an unlikely protagonist, re-invent what we knew about the aliens and expose MNU’s dastardly plans.
The most impressive thing about “District 9” is the creativity of the script and the unpredictable way the story unfolds. Blomkamp positions the aliens as a metaphor for social undesirables most obviously referencing South African Apartheid. He wisely steers the movie into pure fun instead of laboring political messages, but applying human behavior to an alien race and saying our reaction to them would be no different then our reaction to fellow members of the human race is statement enough. The script(co-written by Terri Tatchell) then focuses singularly down to Wikus’ plight in a jarring step out of the mockumentary style of before. Most Message Board Nerds aren’t going to like this shift, but by making our lead an unlikable weasel and putting him in a sympathetic situation the movie keeps us wondering what will happen next. It never goes easy on Wikus, flinging him from one nightmare to the next, making us wonder if he actually will make it to the end of the movie. How rare is that?
Then there are the special effects, which are truly spectacular. Blomkamp uses CGI and practical effects for exactly what they are designed for, bringing to life creatures and technology that doesn’t exist. The realization of the alien technology is glorious. Lasers splatter military personnel into clouds of blood. Mechs throw pigs through walls. Bombs release some kind of electric shock wave. The visuals in the film inspire the imagination.
By the third act Blomkamp’s opus has exploded in a bullet-splintering cheer-the-hero thrill ride. The chief complaint about “District 9” is the usual “why does a social allegory have to resolve itself with action scenes”. And the answer is 1) the action scenes in this film are unique to it’s story and utterly satisfying and 2) that’s the backward way to look at it. “District 9” is a crowd-pleasing summer movie at heart, but instead of the typical “military-experiment-gone-bad” or “alien-invasion” set-up, it has an exposition that is not merely filler, but smartly and cleverly sets up a backbone for the 2nd half in its own right. After such an invigorating freshman film I am eagerly awaiting what Neill Bomkamp has up his sleeve next.