District 9 (2009)
Humanity finally makes contact with an extraterrestrial alien species in District 9, but we soon grow tired of them and we wish they would just go back to where they came from.
District 9 is the name of the fenced in shanty town in Johannesburg, South Africa where the aliens, derisively nicknamed “Prawns” due to their crustacean-like appearance, are forced to live. We don’t know why their giant spaceship appeared in the sky one day 20 years ago, but now they’re stuck here. They’re the ultimate boat people.
This is the first feature from director Neill Blomkamp, adapted from his short film Alive in Joburg. Like the short, the first part of the movie is shot in a handheld documentary fashion as a small camera crew follows private military contractor Multi National United's (MNU) chipper bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe as he serves notice to the aliens that they are being evicted from District 9 to a new location outside the city. (The aliens are asked to sign a form "for legal reasons.") This new residence, which looks more like a concentration camp, is “for their own good” of course. Wikus soon makes a discovery during his time in the alien slum which I won’t reveal here. Suffice it to say, it puts him at the top of everyone’s most wanted list, including some nasty Nigerian gangsters who run all sorts of illegal operations in District 9.
District 9 is a good sci-fi movie, but not a great one. Actor Sharlto Copley as Wikus is exceptional in his first real acting role (he had bit parts in some of Blomkamp's short films). In early scenes, there's a Peter Sellers quality about him as the bumbling pencil pusher in the short-sleeve sweater. Then as things turn anxious and deadly serious Copley never once falters. I hope we see more of him in other films soon. The “Prawns” (funny the movie never had a “real” name for them, other than this slanderous term) early on are really alien. Their language consists of strange clips and pops. We cannot understand why they do what they do, and they seem to make no attempt to understand us; their strange behavior is a mystery to humans. I liked the apartheid theme, particularly in the early scenes where scientists and people on the street are interviewed about their thoughts on their new alien neighbors. Many of those thoughts, especially from the man and woman in the street, are along the lines of “We don’t want their kind here.”
Before I saw the movie I wondered how the documentary or reality show would play out for the entire movie. It doesn’t; after Wikus’ discovery the documentary camera crew no longer follows him around, the fourth wall goes back up and the movie goes into a traditional narrative. It also becomes a traditional shoot ‘em up. Maybe not traditional as some of the action sequences are fairly impressive, as are all the digital visual effects, especially given that the movie had a budget of about $30 million (that’s just over 1/7 the budget of Transformers 2).
There are more pluses than minuses in District 9. I very much look forward to Blomkamp’s next film. I’d much rather see a sci-fi movie like this that gives you something to think about between all the gunfire and explosions rather than one that’s concerned only with the explosive spectacle.