“District 9” is an intriguing work of science fiction that, while cleverly imagined and well acted, has become more of a critical darling than it deserves.
To be sure, first-time director Neill Blomkamp (who also co-wrote the screenplay) has crafted a decent entry into the genre. Based on its reviews however, its overall entertainment value falls short of expectations.
When a gigantic alien spaceship runs out of gas and becomes stranded over Johannesburg, South Africa (coincidentally enough), the government places the insect-like aliens — labeled prawns — into a large government camp in Johannesburg dubbed District 9. When that camp disintegrates into a slum, military contractor Multinational United (MNU) is hired to maintain order and to eventually relocate the aliens to a new camp called District 10, located outside of Johannesburg.
Sharlto Copley plays Wikus Van De Merwe, the MNU agent overseeing the relocation to District 10. The first 20 to 30 minutes of “District 9” are presented in the style of a documentary, with Wikus hamming it up for the documentarian’s cameras, happily describing the relocation and gleefully leading the imaginary film makers into District 9 to film the first waves of forced evictions.
Wikus comes across as a generic bureaucrat, the proverbial company man who is unintentionally funny and rather clueless; he’s also a bit of a bigot. Because of the documentary-style opening, “District 9” plays almost like two separate films and feels slightly uneven as a result. The documentary footage is not particularly compelling and the movie drags a little until shifting into a more traditional narrative.
Through a chance encounter with one of the aliens — given the human name Christopher by the South Africans–and partially due to his own incompetence, Wikus is inadvertently exposed to an alien chemical that begins restructuring his DNA into alien DNA. This makes him infinitely valuable to MNU, as until now only aliens have been able to operate their advanced weaponry. With his transformation however, Wikus can suddenly operate alien weaponry and he’s eventually whisked away by MNU to a secure location.
While in MNU’s custody, Wikus begins to realize the nefarious lengths to which the government and MNU will go to unlock alien technology. They plan to literally dissect Wikus into pieces, using the bits to create some technology for unlocking alien weaponry.
While on the operating table, Wikus uses his new alien strength to escape and makes his way back to District 9, where he seeks out Christopher. Christopher agrees to help only after realizing that Wikus has been exposed to the alien chemical, which was actually a type of fuel painstakingly concocted by Christopher over a 20-year period.
Christopher had intended to use the fuel as a means of repowering the alien mothership and transporting his fellow aliens home. But the remaining fuel is with MNU and Christopher will only help Wikus reverse his transformation if he agrees to help retrieve it.
Complicating matters is a human gang of illegal arms dealers operating within the slum, whose leader (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) wants to eat Wikus’ alien parts to gain the ability to use alien weaponry. In addition, Les Feldman (John Sumner), Wikus’ father in-law, is working with MNU against Wikus.
For his part, Wikus only wants to reverse his transformation into an alien, reunite with wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood), and resume a normal life. He gradually begins to realize however, that, for better or worse, his life will never be the same; his evolution from bumbling, sycophantic bureaucrat into victimized, conflicted man of conscious is one of the film’s highlights. Wikus and Christopher break into MNU and, following much carnage, retrieve the fuel; hardly anything goes as planned from there however.
“District 9” is moderately original and well-written, with solid direction and good performances. The film’s use of allegory is both a strength and a weakness though. The symbolism here is blunt and stark, bordering, in some ways, on overkill. Allusions to apartheid, to racism and to the injustices of classism and segregation are prominent throughout — so much so that, at times, one questions the film makers’ confidence in the material or their faith in the audience’s ability to grasp deeper meaning.
These film makers seem to have little use for subtlety. I was also bothered by the clicky, snappy, indecipherable alien language, which is interpreted onscreen with subtitles; the human beings of the film, however, understand the alien language without using futuristic, sci-fi translators or other devices. The reason for that comprehension is never addressed.
“District 9,” while certainly not the best film of the year — as many of the reviews suggest — may qualify as the best science fiction film of 2009. The reason for this film’s hype might lay in its originality; there’s so little of that from modern Hollywood.
In any case, though uneven in places, “District 9” has decent eye-candy (especially for its meager budget) and is involving and well-made, if only moderately thought provoking. If nothing else, District 9 is certainly an example of relevant, well-done science fiction.
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