DISTRICT 9 (director/writer: Neill Blomkamp; screenwriter: Terri Tatchell; cinematographer: Trent Opaloch; editor: Julian Clarke; music: Clinton Shorter; cast: Sharlto Copley (Wikus Van De Merwe), Jason Cope (Grey Bradnam – UKNR Chief Correspondent), Nathalie Boltt (Sarah Livingstone – Sociologist), Sylvaine Strike (Dr Katrina McKenzie), John Summer (Les Feldman – MIL Engineer), David James (Koobus Venter), Vanessa Haywood (Tania Van De Merwe), Eugene Khumbanyiwa (Obesandjo 7), Mandla Gaduka (Fundiswa Mhlanga), Kenneth Nkosi (Thomas), Louis Minnaar (Piet Smit); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Peter Jackson/Carolynne Cunningham; TriStar Pictures; 2009-New Zealand/USA)
“An intelligent action-packed sci-fi film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An intelligent action-packed sci-fi film that offers social commentary on worldwide issues such as racism, the current immigration, occupation and refugee problems. Variety correctly tagged it the “thinking person’s alien movie.” First-time feature director, the 29-year-old South African director of TV commercials now living in Canada, Neill Blomkamp, cowrites this low-budget film ($30 million) with Terri Tatchell. The project was backed by Lord of the Rings producer/director Peter Jackson, whose fingerprints are all over it.
It’s shot in a faux documentary style with a hand-held camera. There’s a constant stream of mock news coverage–CNN-style–talking heads, and archival footage from local news agencies, as it offers the breaking news taking place at the war-torn front lines of its interspecies war.
A gigantic spaceship (known as the mothership) from another planet has stalled over Johannesburg in the 1980s because it ran out of the special gas it must use and all its worker alien passengers were herded together behind barbed-wire enclosures in crowded temporary living quarters, named District 9, that soon became a shantytown with a population of a million or so. The place for the last 20 years has been run by a private corporation, MNU (Multi-National United, who are anxious to break the secrets of the aliens’ ultra-powerful weapons at any cost), and had government support in their illegal medical practices in secret labs and other nefarious activities. The humans also feared the advanced technology of the aliens and expected to be attacked, therefore would not allow them to return or bear arms; while the aliens proved to be thieves and untrustworthy, and were thought of as inferior to humans. This failed living arrangement brought to the surface the baser instincts in both the aliens and humans. Because the aliens were so different (like they loved to eat cat food), they were segregated (think racial apartheid) and were disrespectfully referred to as prawns (because of their crustacean-shell armor and the mouth tentacles that wiggle when they speak in gurgles in either a human language or in their own).
The annoyingly cheerful doofus, a not too swift subtle racist, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is an MNU desk jockey operative who was promoted not on merit but through nepotism by his Cheney-like father-in-law (Louis Minnaar), the managing director of the company, to oversee the transfer of the aliens to the more remote District 10 (which is really a concentration camp, think Nazis!). We catch Wikus and his armed team having a rough time evicting the hostile creatures in their filthy shack homes in District 9. Accidentally the arrogant Wikus gets sprayed with a sticky black substance when grabbing a silver cylinder in one of his searches of an alien shack and within hours the goop begins altering his DNA so he becomes part alien. When the MNU doctors note that, suddenly Wikus becomes a valuable asset coveted by both the MNU and a vicious superstitious Nigerian gang lord dealing in weapons, drugs, black market food sales to the aliens and prostitution (the leader believes if he eats Wikus’ alien arm, he will grow strong like an alien).
The hapless Wikus becomes a fugitive prawn, estranged from his wife Tania and forced to team up with a smart prawn, Christopher Johnson (voiced by Jason Cope), and his kid, Little CJ. The most sensitive and sane person in the story is Christopher, and he’s his people’s only hope to be saved. He promises to help restore Wikus back to a human if he helps the aliens return to their planet–which means swiping the cylinder (which holds their fuel, which was being secretly distilled by Chris for the last two decades) from the heavily guarded storage place at MNU headquarters. It also leads to Wikus learning some life lessons at the hands of the prawns he once looked down upon (like how society is controlled by the ruling class and how it feels to be oppressed when a member of the powerless class) and must fight off one of his own protectors of society, the villainous MNU killer Koobus (David James), someone he was previously quite comfortable having on his side.
The film paints an ugly picture of the racist, corrupt and xenophobic world, and that the earthlings are even more dangerous and uncivilized than the aliens. This is no sugarcoated E.T., but more like a real-life allegorical lesson for earthlings as it’s speculated how indeed we would treat alien visitors judging from our recent history. It follows B film conventions of the 1950s (think Creature From the Black Lagoon-1954!), and makes good use of integrating modern CGI effects into the story line.
REVIEWED ON 8/16/2009 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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