Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: "District 9"

One of the most thrilling movie experiences one can have is walking into a film you know next to nothing about, and being completely transported away to a wholly unexpected destination.

"District 9" is a South African film about an incursion of aliens coming to live on Earth, and being rounded up into a ghetto that gives the movie its name. That's pretty much all I knew about it beforehand.

It sounded like a knockoff of "Alien Nation," a 1988 James Caan flick with a similar theme. "District 9" starts out on an off-kilter, almost humorous note, but keeps layering in surprises and deeper subtexts.

The film unfolds in a documentary style. Our first encounter is with a buffoonish character named Wikus Van De Merwe, who sits in an office and talks in a bouncy sing-song pattern. It turns out he's a bureaucrat with MNU Alien Affairs, the public/private association tasked with overseeing nearly 2 million aliens housed in a shantytown outside Johannesburg.

Through archival footage we learn that the aliens' ship appeared one day over the city, sitting motionless and uncommunicative. Humans eventually cut into the craft and found a horde of starving aliens. Bug-like and chitinous, the aliens -- dubbed "prawns" in the same derogatory way people use terms like "gooks" -- did not seem to have much knowledge of the technology they carried with them.

It was theorized that these creatures were the worker drones of an insect-like alien race, and they certainly didn't seem very smart. They mostly scavenged bits of junk, and seemed to have a particular jones for cat food. So they were hoarded together and put into District 9 more than 20 years ago.

Now the human locals want the aliens moved to a concentration camp out in the countryside, and Wikus has been put in charge of the eviction and relocation. He was chosen solely because he is the son-in-low of the MNU chief, and because he's too out of his depth to oppose the heavy-handed tactics employed by the company's mercenaries. (The head merc is played by David James, who manages to be scary even when he's not doing anything.)

I don't want to say anything more about the plot, other than the relocation mission goes horribly awry, and Wikus finds himself forced to share the aliens' perspective.

Wikus is played by Sharlto Copley, who I was astonished to find is a first-time actor. Copley transforms his character over the course of the film from an inept corporate flunky into a sympathetic figure that the audience roots for. What a debut.

The aliens themselves are entirely computer-generated. Even their voices are not done by actors, but employ a series of clicks and scritches.

Director Neill Blomkamp, who co-write the script with Terri Tatchell, initially keeps his camera far away from the aliens, allowing them to be seen as scary and (literally) inhuman. As the story progresses, he moves in closer and closer on their faces, and picks out one in particular, who uses the human-given name Christopher Johnson. Christopher has a young son and seems craftier than his fellows; the walls of his shack are lined with bits of computers that he's evidently not using just for decoration.

"District 9" was based on a 6-minute short film by Blomkamp, which was discovered by Peter Jackson of "Lord of the Rings" fame, who then scraped together $30 million to make a feature version. I'd say Blomkamp hit the lottery, except it's audiences who are the real winners.

3.5 stars

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