Oops! Wrong planet: District 9 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2009)

It’s hip on the mothership.

The alien invaders have come knock knock knockin’ on the box office door to signal their seasonal pilgrimage to the local multiplex. Okay, technically, in the case of District 9, the aliens aren’t necessarily “invaders” so much as…refugees, who have the misfortune of running out of gas (in a matter of speaking) while hovering over South Africa. Boy, did they make a wrong turn.

We learn from a montage that 20-odd years have passed since the aliens first made contact; in the interim the South African government has evacuated the malnourished populace from their gargantuan mothership and introduced them to the joys of township living. The aliens, referred to derogatorily as “prawns” due to their crustacean-like physiology, develop a proclivity for tinned cat food, and resign themselves to living the slum life whilst the global debate about what ultimately should be done about them drags on.

In the meantime, the government has contracted a private company to micro-manage the residents of “District 9” (official speak for the area where the aliens are interred). The company, Multi-National United, has taken a keen interest in unlocking the secret to operating the alien weaponry that was confiscated; much to their chagrin, the hardware does not respond to human touch.

While one of the company’s officials (Sharlto Copley, as the type of officious, soullessly cheerful bureaucrat you love to hate) is serving eviction notices in one of the slums, he stumbles into a situation that soon turns him into a political football in the brewing conflict between the disgruntled aliens and their human oppressors.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp is a “discovery” by producer Peter Jackson, who originally enlisted the up-and-comer to help develop a feature film adaptation of the Halo video game (a project which looks  to be on permanent hold). As you watch District 9, you glean why Jackson has banked on this previously unknown filmmaker; he certainly has an imaginative style and a flair for kinetic action sequences.

Although the film eventually descends into a somewhat predicable flurry of loud explosions and splattering viscera, it does sport a rousing first half, thanks to the terrific production design, outstanding alien creature effects and the gripping docu-realism. It’s not for the squeamish; if you are, you might want to take a pass.

As for the political allegory, while it can safely be assumed and is definitely implied (especially considering South Africa’s history) it is not necessarily ladled on with a trowel. I didn’t get the impression that the filmmakers were trying to make it the central theme; sometimes, a sci-fi story…is just a sci-fi story.

There is some controversy regarding the film’s depiction of Nigerian nationals who live among the aliens. The characters in question are a Nigerian crime lord and his evil henchmen, who profit off the refugees via prostitution, extortion and black marketeering. In the context of the narrative, I thought those characters served the story (perhaps we could have done without the anachronistic witch doctor). This is not the first movie of its kind (nor will it be the last), but it is one of the more original genre entries in recent memory.

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