District 9 (New Zealand, 2009)

August 12, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
District 9 Poster

It is universally acknowledged (at least by those who don't play with Transformers toys) that the best science fiction stories are those that use the devices of aliens, robots, and space ships to illustrate some greater truth. Star Trek (the TV series in its various incarnations and, to a lesser degree, the movies) understood this, and that's one reason it has become revered in some circles despite frequent lapses into dubious science. District 9, the eye-opening feature debut from South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, recognizes this as well and, in order to avoid the possibility of his message being overlooked, he abandons subtlety. Anyone who watches District 9 and doesn't think of Apartheid, Nazis, and Josef Mengele needs to spend some time reading a few history books.

The premise is not unique for a science fiction movie, although the direction in which Blomkamp takes it is. A giant spaceship has arrived at Earth and, after bypassing cities like New York and Chicago, it comes to hover over Johannesburg, South Africa. It hangs there in mid-air, motionless, until an expedition from Earth arrives and cuts its way into the ship. Inside, the humans find millions of alien worker drones, sick and malnourished, and a massive operation is begun to transport the aliens from their ship to the ground, feed them, and give them a new "home." Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough, and the alien habitat, District 9, becomes more of a concentration camp than a refuge. Things start really going wrong when the decision is made to transfer the aliens from their current residence to a smaller, more remote location. Wilkus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is not competent to handle the operation of which he is in charge, and his lack of experience is quickly evident. His first day in this position ends with him in the hospital, having been contaminated by an alien fluid - and that's where his personal nightmare begins.

The film has been assembled in a part-documentary, part you-are-there style, although without the potential nausea-inducing camerawork that marred Cloverfield for many viewers. Parts of District 9 are black-and-white and, even when things are in color, the hues have been drained and washed out. All of this works to provide a gritty look and amp up the level of believability. The special effects, which include everything from shots of the mothership hovering over Johannesburg to blasts from various weapons to the CGI rendering of the creatures, are first-rate.

The film recalls the likes of The Day the Earth Stood Still, David Cronenberg's The Fly, and Independence Day. Absent are the high-minded ideals evident in more optimistic productions such as E.T., Close Encounters, and Star Trek: First Contact. Here, the premise is simple: the humanitarian impulses that lead to the planet welcoming the aliens are quickly overridden by greed and xenophobia. Some try to profit from the newcomers while others, ruled by fear, want to destroy them. Some might argue that Blomkamp's perspective is bleak and cynical, but a cursory glimpse at the whole of recorded history validates his position.

The occasional offbeat humor in District 9 is needed - the material is so bleak that without it, this would be a tough 112 minutes to endure. There are also plenty of action sequences and, unlike in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, they are expertly choreographed, easy to follow, and generate a sense of tension and excitement. (And, yes, the biggest and best of the action sequences involves a giant robot-like creature.) The film accomplishes a rare thing: it's a science fiction story with depth and thought-provoking ideas that still has room for shoot-outs, explosions, and bloody violence. The R-rating is well earned - more than one person, after being hit by an energy weapon, explodes in a shower of blood, and Wikus' Fly-like transformation is just as gruesome as when something similar happened to Jeff Goldblum.

One of the most intriguing aspects of District 9 is the way Blomkamp re-aligns our sympathies. In the beginning, aided by the documentary re-cap of the aliens' arrival on Earth, we are neutral observers, naturally prone to side with humanity. As the story unfolds, however, and we are privy to the atrocities committed inside District 9 and the inhumane manner in which the "prawns" (as they are derisively called because of a crustacean-like appearance) are treated, our thinking changes. By the end, mankind is the enemy and the average viewer wouldn't be saddened if a potential sequel opened in much the same manner as Independence Day. As you sow, so shall you reap...

District 9 expands upon the ideas explored in Blomkamp's 2005 short, "Alive in Joburg" (which one assumes will be included on the DVD). Peter Jackson produced the movie, adding an internationally revered name to the credits that will doubtless help in marketing. (Jackson had originally intended for Blomkamp to direct the movie adaptation of Halo, but when that deal fell apart, District 9 became Plan B.) However, although Jackson's moniker may help to get warm bodies into theater seats, the Lord of the Rings director is not needed to keep them there. Nor is the lack of an established actor (Sharlto Copley, the lead, and only human with significant screen time, acquits himself admirably, but is an unkown) a drawback. District 9 speaks with a loud, clear voice and by defying as many science fiction conventions as it embraces, it becomes a singular movie-going experience. For fans of the genre, the summer of 2009 truly has been the best of times and the worst of times. Sure, there have been the likes of Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe, but this has also been the season of Moon and now District 9.

District 9 ends in a way that is both satisfying and unsettling. Although the story is told, there are untilled ground and unanswered questions - not the least of which is what will happen in three years. A sequel, if one is warranted, is effectively set up, but is not mandatory. The strongest afterimage left by the film is the one provided by gazing through the dark lens of District 9 at human nature. I, for one, hope the inhabitants of Earth never encounter visitors from another planet because the reality of how we might interact with them could be close to what is depicted here, and that's a depressing thought.

District 9 (New Zealand, 2009)

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Louis Minnaar, Vanessa Haywood
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch
Music: Clinton Shorter
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2009
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2009-08-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1