Review: District 9

Alien invasion stories can often seem a bit far-fetched, but making a great action movie with a compelling story for just $30 million shouldn’t. If “District 9” scores at the box office, maybe it will drive home to Hollywood that eternal but oft forgotten message that great films come from great stories. “District 9” is a sci-fi movie that takes a great concept and runs with it behind committed visionaries who believe completely in what they’re doing. If carefree producers with fat checkbooks had been involved, this story of aliens stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa, forced by the government to live in slums would feel about as hokey as “Starship Troopers.” Instead, it’s a gripping action blockbuster accompanied by a running social commentary.

The only big name attached to “District 9” is producer Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”). South-African born Director Neill Blomkamp makes his debut based on a script he wrote with friend Terri Tatchell. The star is Sharlto Copley, who you’ve also never heard of before. So aside from Jackson, what’s the draw? Blomkamp’s premise will simply capture your imagination and glue your interest. Most people can’t sell a film with just that, but Blomkamp is so firmly in control of this fictional scenario that anyone can easily believe it for just a couple hours. If you think you can tell that from the trailers, just wait, there’s more.

Starting out as a fictional documentary, “District 9” explains how the aliens, termed “prawns” for their shrimp-like appearance, showed up hovering over Johannesburg in their mothership and were eventually forced to relocate to Earth. The South African government gave policing permission to Multi-National United, a corp that claimed it wanted to study the species scientifically, when it was chiefly interested in decoding its incredible weapons technology.

Eventually the film shifts gears into full-out action mode as Wikus van de Merwe (Copley), who was put in charge of a new operation to relocate the prawns 200 kilometers outside of the city in new refugee-type camps for MNU, becomes infected by an alien substance, making him a walking piece of scientific research.

Carrying the historical weight of Apartheid in South Africa, “District 9” essentially plays out a social drama in many aspects, wondering exactly how things might turn out if aliens came to Earth without the goal of taking over our planet. How would we treat them? Segregate them? Kill them without just cause? There are several bumps on the road to fully realizing this concept, but the idea of it and the details Blomkamp gives the aliens — such as an affinity for rubber and an almost drug-like addiction to cat food — cover up the mistakes with ease, keeping you interested in what’s going to happen next or what else you might learn about the aliens and their circumstances.

As an action film, “District 9” picks up halfway through, giving plenty of blood-soaring body- dismembering gore (sometimes to a comical degree) to those viewers that bought tickets just to get what they expected from the genre. It does not cheat those looking for just entertainment. But “District 9” clearly strives to earn more respect with its audience. The movie doesn’t flaunt its weapons inventions, for example, but incorporates them naturally into the plot in order to generate intrigue, then pulling the trigger and giving us the long- awaited spectacle.

It’s the kind of respect that a serious storyteller has for his or her audience, and Blomkamp has it. Many plot points and dialogue exchanges are predictable, but the presentation is highly original and the concept is fresh, modern and head-smart compared to the ’90s garbage of “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” as wildly popular as those films were. The documentary feel and the hand-held camera action might be the trappings of low budget, but they really tell this story in unique riveting fashion.

It amazes me that Michael Bay can take $200 million and make the dizzying piece of scrap metal that was “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” yet an unknown pal of Peter Jackson can take less than a quarter of that money and make thought-provoking and exciting science-fiction with some of 2009’s most original storytelling.

Released: 14 August 2009
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Terri Tatchell, Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley


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