After years and years of paranoid cinema predicting the invasion of Earth by alien beings that want to enslave the human race, or harvest all earthly goods, someone has taken the story and flipped it. How kind would we be to those different than us? Director Neill Blomkamp has a rather pessimistic view of this scenario, and his film District 9 is a harsh condemnation of his fellow humans. Sure, this is a not-so-subtle metaphor about racism, but a self-righteous sermon is the last thing you’ll take away from this film.
A mothership has marooned an alien population of more than a million in the sky above Johannesburg in the 1908s. It’s mysterious appearance and silence has, understandably shaken the world, and action is required. When humans finally board the hovering craft, a whole society of alien creatures (referred to derogatorily as prawns) is found malnourished and stranded. Along with other undesirable populations, the powers that be decide to build a refugee camp titled District 9, and stick the aliens in with others down on their luck. With no plausible solution to the problem, the prawns stick to their camp for twenty years. The camp turns into a slum, and they devolve quickly into a violent society forced to their knees when basic living needs aren’t met. The South African government uses cat food to keep them from rioting and causing problems for their neighbors.
Much more of a plot synopsis could ruin the film-going experience. The film starts off like a documentary: scenes filmed with handcams that look like they came off YouTube or Ogrish.com, clips of interviews with those involved in human/alien relations. This first twenty minutes or so is so well done, it sucks you into the film further than even those most seriously resistant to sci-fi will be ready for. The animation is done so well, the prawns come to life. The setting in slums for minorities, the comparisons to apartheid and the specific setting in unstable South Africa might draw a collective groan from those that don’t want to be watching a two hour film about a bleeding hearts issue. I was dubious myself going in. But Blomkamp rises above the usual finger wagging and turned out a film that both entertains and sparks a little intropsection.
Blomkamp co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell (this is Tatchell’s first writing credit). The protagonist of the story, Wickus Van Der Merwe (a remarkable performance by Sharlto Copley) is at the center of the story. He’s leading a operation to evict the alien residents of District 9 to a new location (aptly titled Distrcit 10), and is faced with the most difficult transformation, from being part of the solution, to becoming part of problem. As the film moves on from its first act, the gonzo style filming mostly ceases, and a more orthodox narrative emerges. At this point, it loses a little bit of the taut urgency, which is a slight let down seeing has how well it started out. Although the pace slows, it doesn’t lose its interest.
The bitchin’ bottom line: District 9 will break most of it’s genre boundaries to provide one hell of an entertaining movie, without compromising its sometimes overstated message.