starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike
screenplay by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
directed by Neill Blomkamp
by Walter Chaw An unlikely marriage of Alien Nation and David Cronenberg's The Fly, Neill Blomkamp's remarkable District 9 is that occasional genre picture that's both topical and so good it made my stomach knot. Set in South Africa, it opens by rejecting the Eurocentrism of most science-fiction pictures. Here, the little green men don't hover over the Lincoln Memorial or the Eiffel Tower, but rather Johannesburg, where the malnourished, crustacean-like denizens (they're called, derogatorily, "prawns") of a giant mothership are quickly relegated to a barbed-wire enclosed slum, the titular "District 9." Its parallel to Alien Nation is obvious, down to that film's equation of aliens with Chinese immigrants in San Francisco; these are the "bestial" blacks of Afrikaner nightmares: physically powerful, engaged in illicit activities, and blamed for every casualty outside their heavily-segregated "district." But where Alien Nation identified the threat to that immigrant community as an insidious ghost of its traditional past (an opium allegory? How 18th-century), District 9 satirizes the numbing effect of cable news networks, as well as the dangers faced by any outcast culture trying to eke out subsistence existences on the fringes of majority society. In a very real way, District 9 is a film about not only the corrosive potential of grossly-overfed public perception, but also the immigration debate that rages on worldwide.
Nothing about it, in fact, is obvious. Yes, it's easy to trainspot its genre references (look! It's the genetically-coded weaponry of Judge Dredd! And the kick-ass power-loader from Aliens!), but the way that events unfold--from the surprising vulnerability of the alien technology to the abrupt exuberance of its spasms of graphic violence--is ingenious and carefully-plotted. Consider a scene in which our pencil-pushing nebbish hero Wikus (Sharlto Copley) comes home to an unwelcome surprise party and the amount of tension generated by his need to visit the loo. It's a small thing, really, but in that moment is the seed of why District 9 works so well: the film is about human reactions and non-reactions in absurd situations. Consider, too, what Wikus wants the most--and if his desire is much different from that of the alien protagonist (revealing whose name would be spoiling one of the film's funniest jokes). It's an excellent art installation depicting the concept of irony as the defining factor in our attempts to make sense of atrocity. More than just a parable of Apartheid, more than another genre excoriation of Guantanamo, it's a film that examines two relationships--one a marriage, the other between a father and his son--as they're subjected to the caprices of our capacity to do one another harm from behind the aegis of ignorance and intolerance. That it happens to be the best action film of the summer is perhaps the happiest surprise of a picture that deals in giant social issues and still has room for a gun that causes people to explode into gobbets of gore.
Its special effects beautifully functional in the best tradition of the dirty future of Star Wars and Alien, District 9 works because nothing in it feels superfluous. There's no fat on it to trim. Every scene moves the proceedings, every sequence ratchets the tension. The stakes are clear from minute to minute: we understand where antagonists are in relation to each other and, as exemplified by a brilliantly-perverse cock-fighting set-piece in the middle of the film, there's never any confusion in its images or implications. Produced by Peter Jackson, the only recognizable name involved in the entire production, the whole of it reminds of the Cave Troll sequence from his The Fellowship of the Ring for its clarity of ferocious movement--and of Jackson's early splatter films for its efficient use of fantastic dismemberment. And it knows well enough to ground its technical achievements in a modest story about modest desires in the midst of what might be the end of the world. Somehow, by its end, it's managed to paint a startling portrait of not just Soweto, but every slum and refugee camp--and of abuses of power by the technologically superior, and of the dangers in kicking over antpiles without careful consideration of consequences. Better still, it suggests that it's impossible to predict every outcome to any action. District 9 finds time, too, to take fleeting shots at disastrous nepotism ("Great job, Brownie!") and the trespasses of public works in the pursuit of "the greater good." It's a rare and fabulous film, intensely satisfying, pleasantly thought-provoking, and the best thing of its ilk since Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later. District 9 is the real deal. Hallelujah. Originally published: August 14, 2009.