District 9 (2009) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: R for bloody violence and pervasive language
Running time: 112 min.
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka, Kenneth Nkosi
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Producer Peter Jackson (King Kong, Return of the King) and 29-year-old first-time feature screenwriter/director Neill Blomkamp's captivating, genre-bending science fiction action-thriller (call it a better version of Alien Nation), with a serious satirical subtext decrying the evils of apartheid (allusions to Cape Town's District Six in the 1970s), xenophobia, segregation, and just plain human nature. District 9 is a fleshed-out version of a short 6-minute film Blomkamp, a native South African, created called "Alive in Joberg", which was released in 2005 and featured players like stars Copley (The A-Team) and Cope.
The decision to make District 9 developed when Jackson and Blomkamp's initial attempt to make a film version of the popular video game "Halo," which had similar themes and a narrative of aliens vs. humans, fell through. One can easily surmise that some of the ideas for that film, especially in terms of the military vs. alien confrontation and the facets of advanced alien weaponry, made their way into this expansion of Blomkamp's original vision.
The film opens with a mockumentary piece, told in retrospective of the events we witness later, about the coming of an alien spacecraft that sits hovering above the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the alien race found aboard. Though humanoid, the aliens are dubbed "Prawns" due to their resemblance to the crustaceans of Earth of the same name. The aliens prove to be an unruly bunch on the surface, no doubt intimidated by the poking, prodding and disrespect of their human hosts, so they are placed in a shantytown of sorts, separated from the human population, save for the military and Nigerian crime lords allowed in to barter and intimidate them. We find that they've been on Earth for about twenty years, and though humans and prawns don't speak each other's languages verbally, they understand each other's dialogue quite well.
Sharlto Copley brilliantly plays the energetically eager Wikus Van De Merwe, the MNU (Multi-National United) representative responsible for evicting the aliens, who've amassed to nearly 2 million in population, and transporting them to their new homes -- less run down, but much smaller and less habitable, further away from the city. In many ways, though he's just another obstinate, ignorant bureaucrat in the beginning, this is a film that embraces a transformative journey for him. Wikus represents the idea that people (including alien peoples), rather than constantly seek to push others away for their differences, should find ways to seek common ground. The representation of Wikus's realization of this occurs in more of a physical sense, as he experiences, as in John Howard Griffin's "Black Like Me", first-hand corporate exploitation, dangerous opportunism, and the full brunt of the racist regime, as his physical features begin to change from exposure, a la The Fly, to a rare alien chemical that becomes key to the story. But, as much as he might change physically, it's his mental transformation that provides the truest of metamorphoses -- only by seeing ourselves through different eyes can we ever truly see ourselves for who and what we truly are.
The phony documentary style isn't prevalent throughout, though it does blend seamlessly with the narrative moments, including some lengthy, and quite grisly, action pieces. Hand-held cameras are liberally employed, but the CGI is featured throughout, not to mention gruesome special effects shots involving bodies exploding, alien appendages and human giblets flying, realistic faux news recreations, highly-detailed shanty communities and interiors, and high-tech, exotic weaponry. Not to mention the stunningly rendered mothership in the sky. That it does all that it does at the cost of a paltry $30 million budget, without looking cheap, should be a model for major Hollywood studios, who regularly churn out sure duds at five times the cost, to follow.
With smart action, dark comedy, poignant themes, and subtly powerful sense of pathos, District 9 stands up as one of the better science fiction films to come out in recent years, and one of the best films of 2009 (Indeed, it would become nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture). It's a wild, surreal ride, and not always pretty or easy to watch, but well worth the journey.
©2011 Vince Leo