District 9 is much more than a sci-fi thriller. It's an engaging mockumentary infused with black humor, a scathing satire on 24-hour news, commentary on xenophobia, corporate greed and apartheid, and it's all wrapped up in a full-blown action movie.
So much work went into this movie that it's hard to believe it was made for only $30 million. At least 10 minutes of credits are given to post production special effects teams and yet the beauty of D-9 is that its high-tech soul comes across as low-tech believability.The plot is a straightforward Stranger in a Strange Land. An alien spacecraft is marooned over Johannesburg, South Africa. After the starving aliens are rescued, a shantytown of corrugated metal shacks is constructed to house them, and over the next 28 years their population expands to 1.8 million. Segregation and cultural differences lead to increasing prejudice and violence between humans and aliens. The Predator-like creatures with spiny torsos and protruding mandibles are derogatorily referred to as "prawns" and treated as an underclass.
The first 45 minutes are riveting. We're given the context through documentary-style talking heads, shaky hand-held cameras and subtitles for the guttural emanating of aliens. Skyscraper silhouettes provide a backdrop to the miles of astonishing squalor, all beneath the ominously hovering spacecraft. Prawns live in slums reeking of garbage, eating cow heads and cat food (which is like a drug to them), preyed upon by gangsters who deal mainly in weapons and prostitution that involves co-mingling humans and alien species. The government agency MNU has a plan to evict all prawns to a "nicer" more controlled camp outside Jo-Berg. In moving them from their homes, the agency, with news cameras in tow, unwittingly investigates the conditions of poverty stricken shack town. Lead by Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) as the newly appointed bureau chief, MNU serves eviction notices door to door accompanied by military force. Wikus, with the demeanor of a science teacher circa 1950, stutters his way around, exposing for the news cameras the dark desperation of District 9.
It's an impressive first feature for the 29-year-old Director Neill Blomkamp, who wrote the screenplay with help from producer Peter Jackson. District 9 unleashes a couple of hokey turns, even a blatant Iron Man rip-off, but thankfully it more closely resembles Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: the Iron Man.
D-9 will never be accused of unoriginality. The CGI prawns and all the special effects serve as background, while the focus remains on the story. Copley lands the role of a lifetime as Wikus, one of the most unlikely heroes on celluloid to date. This character grows in leaps and bounds - an actor's dream come true. Copley's facial expressions are simply amazing and his ensuing metamorphosis is impeccable.
There's a twist around midway when Blomkamp drops the docu-style and lets the story unfold. What follows is a mix of political corruption, militarism, mad-as-hell aliens, cable news parody and Rambo. CGI notwithstanding, it's also an elaborate moral metaphor that explores the contemporary themes of separatism, segregation and even the ethical boundaries of scientific research.
When forced into an uneasy co-existence, humans and aliens violently bring out the worst in each other, and that's something to think about. District 9 will undoubtedly spark debate with all the ground it covers. A vivid depiction of poverty, ignorance and ostracism, the film's heart is a reflection on the human condition backed up by lots of blood-spurting action.
District 9 ★★★★✩
Starring Sharlto Copley, David James, Jason Cope, Mandla Gaduka, Vanessa Haywood. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Rated R