District 9 -- Film Review

Combining the very best of the postwar sci-fi movies with their trenchant political undertones and pulse-pounding dynamism and contemporary movie technology that can blend aliens seamlessly into a realistic human world of urban and moral decay, "District 9" flirts with greatness. This science fiction film from South African-born Canadian Neill Blomkamp, a protege of Peter Jackson, who produced the film, stumbles in a few crucial areas but even so it's a helluva movie. No true fan of science fiction -- or, for that matter, cinema -- can help but thrill to the action, high stakes and suspense built around a very original chase movie.

Having scored a direct hit with audiences last week at Comic-Con, "District 9" is primed for solid business in all markets when it rolls out domestically in August and globally from August through October.

By choosing to film in the city of his youth, Johannesburg, Blomkamp situates his story in a very real place off the beaten path for science fiction. The accents, townships, barbed-wire enclosures and harsh, dusty environment all give "District 9" a gritty sense of place. Why shouldn't an alien spaceship land some place other than the U.S.?

In fact, the film's alien ship arrived over the sky of Jo'burg 20 years before the movie begins. Instead of Spielberg aliens, these are exhausted refugees whose ship literally ran out of gas. The stalled mother ship still hovers over the cityscape, its bedraggled occupants long ago removed from its foul compartments into makeshift camps separated from the human population.

These creatures are deliberately made to appear disgusting: Located somewhere between insects and crustaceans on the evolutionary scale, the aliens have hard shell areas, extremely thin waists, sinewy joints and surprising strength. Humans, in their disgust, call them "prawns" because they are bottom-feeding scavengers who root around for food, especially cat food!

(Make what you will of a humanoid species segregated into refugee camps in South Africa, a place still coping with the after-effects of the apartheid system. The film makes no comment, nor does it need to.)

What the aliens apparently lack is a dark liquid that powers not only their ship but sophisticated weaponry. The humans would love to control those weapons, but activation requires alien DNA. That doesn't prevent a Nigerian underworld boss, Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa), from buying up the illegal alien weapons with cat food.

Multinational United (MNU), a private company contracted to control the growing alien population, decides to relocate them from their homes in District 9 to a rural concentration camp. Through nepotism, the task of this mass removal is handed to MNU field operative Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a by-the-book wimp in a vast bureaucracy.

While delivering eviction notices, he discovers and tries to clear an illegal lab run by alien Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope). (You've got to like the idea that condescending Earthlings have given human names to this subjugated species.) In doing so, Wikus unwittingly gets infected with the alien virus that rapidly changes his DNA. Within hours, he becomes violently ill and grows an alien claw for a hand.

You guessed it. His claw can now operate alien weaponry. Instantly, he is "the most valuable business artifact on Earth." Somehow this means MNU scientists want to harvest his organs. Wilkus escapes, and the chase is on. Hot on his heels is MNU's chief enforcer and the movie's chief villain, Koobus (David James).

The fugitive hides in the only place no one will look: District 9. There he is forced into an uneasy alliance with Christopher and his young son. Seems that virus he came in contact with is the liquid Johnson has been distilling for the past two decades to power the mother ship back home.

The story, written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, comes at you via different media components: Some is raw black-and-white surveillance footage; an MNU corporate video delivers interviews with staffers and other participants, including Wikus; real footage from news agencies provides crowd scenes; finally, cinematographer Trent Opaloch's use of everything from handheld to mini-cameras to shoot much of the action as if it were happening beyond his control, a thing caught on the run.

What the film runs away from though is well-rounded characters. Wikus stands alone as the only fully developed character, a human who has little choice but to become a traitor to his own species. Everyone else leaves a fleeting impression, and the film's villains are too cartoonish. When the decision is made to harvest Wikus' organs -- by his own father-in-law, no less -- there isn't even a hint of a moral dilemma.

Then too the whole point of the chase is vaguely defined. The Nigerian gangster wants to cut off Wikus' arm to eat it! The MNU scientists want to kill Wikus. This makes little sense: Shouldn't Wikus -- the only being who can operate alien weapons -- be of greater value alive than dead? What do the scientists believe they can extract from his organs?

Maybe no one thinks straight in the blur of events. Most of the action takes place over 74 hours. Blomkamp catches its frantic activity with all the raw authenticity of a documentary, egged on by the rhythmic drive of Clinton Shorter's magnificent score.

"District 9" is smart, savvy filmmaking of the highest order.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 14 (TriStar)
Production: TriStar Pictures, QED International, Block/Hanson, Wingnut Films
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Mandla Gaduka, Kenneth Nkosi
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Producers: Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham
Executive producers: Ken Kamins, Bill Block, Paul Hanson
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Philip Ivey
Music: Clinton Shorter
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editor: Julian Clarke
Rated R, 112 minutes