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My interest in District 9 began as I stood waiting for mass transit and gandered at large posters embellished with an inelegant drawing of a strange creature with a red ďnoĒ symbol plastered over it and the advisement that my bus stop was designated for humans only.  There was no further information, just a website address and phone number.  Ooh, ominous and really clever.  Itís one of a very few movie marketing campaigns that very accurately captures the feeling of the film it represents.  A terrifically original take on the little green men from outer space genre, District 9 is smart on any level and terribly entertaining, but itís even more of an achievement when you consider that itís the first feature by writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

Theyíre here, folks. The aliens have landed and theyíve set up shop in Johannesburg, where their very large spaceship seems to have simply run out of gas.  The military infiltrates the immobile ship and discovers its sickly and malnourished inhabitants.  Camps are then erected for the UFO refugees in an area called District 9.  At first the creatures are a source of world curiosity, but like any visitor whoís overstayed his welcome, their reception sours.  The South African public begins to resent the costs and difficulties of housing these very special immigrants.  Bureaucratic intervention finds Wikus Van De Merwe, an agreeable pencil-pusher, tasked with the assignment of evicting the creatures, derogatorily referred to as prawns due to their crustacean-like appearance, from the crime-ridden tin-shack shantytown the aliensí interment camp has devolved into.  Backed with a trigger-happy militia and a documentary film crew, Wikus finds varying success and comprehension getting the aliens to agree to leave the camp.  His assignment ends suddenly after a search through the home of an educated prawn named Christopher Johnson uncovers a piece of outer-space technology that literally blows up in Wikusí face.  The side-effects of that interaction will bring Wikus much closer to the aliens that anyone thought possible and also make Wikus a very sought-after man for all the wrong reasons.  Wikus will have to overcome his own prejudices against the extraterrestrial immigrants and come to depend on Christopher Johnson for his own survival. 

How fortunate that District 9 is billed as being presented by the Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, guaranteeing an audience who will be thrilled to discover this brilliant new talent in Neill Blomkamp.  Blomkamp has succeeded in creating a clever and intelligent summer actioner; aliens, spaceships, far-out weapons, firepower and all.  The highly transparent analogy of the miserable treatment received by the alien refugees harkens to Blomkampís own homeland of South Africa and its apartheid ghettoes and the way immigrants worldwide are received.  Thereís even a wrist-slapping echo to Guantanamo Bay and its endless imprisonment of people who may or may not actually be criminals.  Blomkampís aliens are unexpectedly powerless; utterly at the mercy of human benefactors who routinely take advantage of them.  Gangs of thugs set up camp within the camp to hide their own criminal activities and gouge the ETs for their food/narcotic of choice, tinned cat food.  Outside the camp, the government and military operations use the visitors as lab rats to further both scientific and munitions experiments; little regard is given to their willingness or the sanctity of their existence.  Once a way is discovered for a human to utilise the aliensí weapons for their own devices, a bewildered, unfortunate extraterrestrial is dragged out for target practise.  In the light of such unkindness, is it any wonder that a small band of immigrants trawls daily through the junk of the camps mining for materials to repair their ship and get the heck out of Joburg?

Blomkamp presents his aliens as decidedly other; their scaly, bug-like exoskeletons and tentacled faces could make them nothing but outer space creatures.  They are hapless and bumbling as any group new to a place where none of the language or customs are known and no one to rely on but each other.  As such, these immigrants suffer horrifying indignities.  Blomkampís humans are fairly one-dimensional caricatures without compassion and driven by ruthless ambition.  Itís only after Wikus becomes a hunted creature subjected to the same cruelties as the aliens, does the former office drone gain any perspective or depth.  Blomkampís gift is in making the creatures, the wistful and put-upon Christopher Johnson and his clever little son most particularly, more human than the humans in his film yet manages to keep them from saccharine sainthood. 

Less by way of boom-crash action than one might expect from a summer sci-fi movie, District 9ís thrills are derived from its crackling sharp script and ingenuity.  For example, the spaceship that features so prevalently in recent posters and ads for the film doesnít really figure very much at all; most of the drama takes place on a far too earthly level. The presentation of the film as a documentary investigating Wikusí assignment reminds one at first a bit of the Blair Witch Project, but that comparison is easily put by the wayside by the superior acting and wonderful cinematography in the wretched slum, a city of tin shacks piled on top of each other in filth.  The aliens are seen often and in daylight and their CGI renderings are amazing.  The audience sees confusion, anger and sadness out of strangely expressive bulging eyes and their movements and gestures make up for their scarcity of dialog.  Newcomer Sharlto Copley is fantastic as Wikus, the low-level government stooge who is reluctantly plunged into the awful world of the aliens.  His dim, cheery amiability early on turns into patronising condescension during the alien evictions, finally transcending into confusion, betrayal and anger as a change in Wikusí situation makes him as open for exploitation as the extraterrestrials he discovers he really didnít understand at all.

Original and ingenious, District 9 is smart, funny and a terrifically entertaining time at the movies.  To consider that this is the work of a first time feature director makes District 9 a marvel and Neill Blomkamp a filmmaker to watch.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Aug. 13th, 2009

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  TriStar)

 

 

 

 

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