2009 | Director: Neill Blomkamp | Writers: Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
The buildup within the internet-based science fiction community for “District 9” was immense, mostly stemming from first-time director Neill Blomkamp’s previous involvement with an aborted “Halo” adaptation, but in spite of the anticipation from sci-fi enthusiasts—or perhaps because of it—the effect for me was one of apprehension. I felt myself really wanting to like the film, which is usually the first sign that I’m setting myself up for disappointment. Happily, that didn’t happen, though for different reasons than expected.
The film begins with documentary-style footage (which all but disappears in the second half) detailing how aliens appeared 20 years prior in a massive, drifting ship above Johannesburg, South Africa, and how, after failed attempts to integrate the beings—all leaderless workers derisively called “Prawns”—into society, they were forced into the titular corporation-run refugee camp, where their growing numbers presented a massive strain on the already-tempestuous post-apartheid society.
In present day, company pen-pusher Wikus van der Merwe (effective rookie actor Sharlto Copley) is promoted to lead a paramilitary force in camp evictions, and in the process, exposes himself to alien technology that inadvertently mutates human tissue. The very anti-Prawn Wikus finds himself torn between his mistrust of the aliens and his frantic search for a cure, aided by a Prawn who thinks he’s found a way to free his people from the inhumanity (inhumalienity?) of the Joburg slums. Meanwhile, the heartless, greedy corporation sends its heavily-armed muscle out to retrieve Wikus for their experiments in genetics and weaponry.
Strangely, I was slightly let down by the movie’s sci-fi aspect, which manifests itself in a largely slow first half bogged down further by interview segments. The Kafka-esque effects of Wikus’ transformation are eerily gripping, especially as his psyche begins to crack, but the specifics about the process are conspicuously absent, leaving that storyline a contrivance among many. How long did it take the humans to learn the alien language? What happened to the missing Prawn leadership? Blomkamp intentionally leaves these and other facts hazy, further clouding his thesis, especially considering the refugee camp setting.
Any lingering questions about the director’s thematic intentions, however, are thoroughly buried when the bullets start to fly. The slum warfare present in “District 9” is beyond impressive, particularly when Blomkamp cuts between frenetic, duck-when-they-shoot handheld views and perfectly-composed wide shots detailing completely awesome feats of technological butt-kickery. It is in these moments where Blomkamp’s story comes together, illustrated through Wikus’ growing rage rather than any trite “aliens-as-aliens” allegory. Though ostensibly a political statement about how greed changes a person, “District 9” is most effective as a revenge fantasy where a newly-put-upon man fights back in lieu of those who can’t. Blomkamp definitely has his best work ahead of him, but a debut this entertaining, if uneven, is one heck of a way to start a career.
Rating: Three and a Half of Five Stars