Review: District 9
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
In “District 9,” a unique and ingeniously executed sci-fi adventure for the ages, a main character undergoes a crucial metamorphosis that holds as much socially relevant water as it does cinematic juice. Produced by genre wizard Peter Jackson and directed by first-timer Neill Blomkamp, this unforgettable – if not vital – film goes through transformations of its own, morphing from an immediately fascinating faux-documentary to an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller to an extremely exciting action movie and back again. The character's changes are arrestingly vivid, but the film's mutations go easily unnoticed, as each stage is deeply engrossing and the stylistic and tonal shifts compliment the smooth yet spry progression of the story. Rarely does a movie come along of which it can be said: “there's never been anything quite like it.” “District 9” is such a movie. It has apparent influences, yes, but in terms of innovative and insightful visual storytelling, it is transcendent. By combining a fully formed visual realm with a cunning script that's built on racial allegory, it acts as both a window into another world and a mirror that reflects our own.
The aliens in “District 9” are not what you'd expect. Their presence on Earth is not an invasion but an inconvenience, and though they possess great strength and technology, they're more vulnerable than violent, more docile than dangerous. Twenty years ago, when their mothership basically ran out of gas about a mile above Johannesburg, South Africa, a salvage team found all one million of them hiding inside, malnourished and defenseless. In a sort of non-human humanitarian effort, government leaders opted to bring the aliens down to Earth and house them in a shantytown-like refugee camp known as District 9. Eventually nicknamed “prawns” because of their likeness to shellfish, the aliens are not welcomed by humans, and District 9 devolves into a segregated, overcrowded slum. The only people who voluntarily interact with the prawns are the Nigerian mafiosos who live among them and worsen the area's conditions by engaging in black market deals like weapons trading and interspecies prostitution. After two decades, the citizens of Johannesburg have grown increasingly intolerant of District 9 and its inhabitants, and a militarized mission to move all of the prawns out of the city limits is imminent.
All of this we learn via a highly convincing and remarkably comprehensive initial segment that intercuts old “news” clips with mockumentary footage. Interviews are incorporated, many of them involving academics but some involving individuals who work for Multi-National United (MNU), a private, cloak-and-dagger-ish company that's been contracted to preside over prawn-related affairs. The key interviewee from MNU is Wikus van der Merwe (unknown Sharlto Copley), a somewhat incompetent eager beaver who's appointed to lead the prawn relocation by his father-in-law, an MNU bigwig. The filmmakers follow Wikus into District 9 like an uncensored on-location news crew, catching every gritty moment as the out-of-his-league field operative and his overzealous, armed comrades knock on prawns' shack doors in a futile attempt at cooperation. And since District 9 is, naturally, loaded with security cameras, Blomkamp occasionally jumps to a surveillance perspective, further diversifying his harmonious blend of vérité aesthetics. In response to his evolving narrative (Blomkamp co-wrote the script with fellow newbie, Terri Tatchell), the director soon mixes the visual bag even more, keeping the handheld but segueing to traditional 35mm once Wikus begins to endure the side effects of a critical close encounter. And that, my friends, is when this already gripping film really takes hold.
“District 9” is a multifaceted triumph, succeeding as an enriching art film, a rip-roaring entertainment, a pointed social commentary and an instantly classic creature feature. Blomkamp, a phenomenal new talent, is a native of South Africa and is as interested and knowledgeable in the history of his homeland as he is in the great, indelible details of sci-fi essentials. Those viewers who are well versed in the same topics will certainly pick up and appreciate the references to Cape Town's District Six and apartheid, as well as the director's nods to “The Fly,” “Aliens,” “Alien Nation” and “E.T.” And every audience member, regardless of his or her grasp on global events, will feel the resonance of the film's real-world implications, which give the movie its heart but never beat you over the head. Even the rare, shallow moviegoer on whom all of the socio-political weightiness is hopelessly lost will still be in hog heaven, as “District 9” boasts all the rollicking, effects-fueled fervor of a big-budget, high-stakes blockbuster.
Though chief credit surely goes to Blomkamp (and his entire technical crew, who carried out what was obviously a monstrous logistical undertaking), the film is not without producer Jackson's distinctive touch. Gleefully unabashed in gore and ickiness, it bears more than a bit of the “Lord of the Rings” helmer's splatterific signature, which isn't as boldfaced as it was in the days of “Dead Alive,” but still ends up scrawled in at least the corner of every subsequent project. Aside from the obliterated bodies and oozing orifices, the creature effects in “District 9,” albeit grotesque, are extraordinary. Conceived by Jackson's Weta Digital and three additional effects studios, the prawns – hybrids of top-notch CG and prosthetics – look stunningly realistic, especially amidst the believable backdrop of Blomkamp's brilliantly detailed landscape. Like any supremely crafted artwork, the combined result of the integral parts – from the prawns' omnipresent hovering spacecraft to the propaganda posters that doubled as part of the film's marketing campaign – appears effortless.
Since there are just too many killer surprises to spoil, I've intentionally avoided discussing most of the particulars of the central plot. Compared to my usual mountains of anticipatory, pre-screening data, I knew very little about “District 9” going in, which led to an exceedingly awesome experience. I advise you to believe the hype, but don't read too much and ruin the fun. Get to the theater, sit near the front, and have your own close encounter.