Friday, March 05, 2010

District 9 (2009) ****1/2

You simply have to see “District 9.” This relatively low-budget, sci-fi thriller may be the most gripping film of the year. This is definitely one where 8 bucks gets you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!

In the near-future setting of “District 9,” an alien spaceship comes to earth and settles in the sky over, of all places, Johannesburg, South Africa. Then, nothing. No attack, no “We come in peace,” no musical scales. The ship just sits there while the world bickers over what to do. After months, the South Africans send commandos to cut their way in, where they find a million aliens starving and living in squalor. The film explains all of this retrospectively, through interviews, which go on to describe how the aliens are ferried down to the ground and fed. Unfortunately, pity for the aliens quickly gives way to fear and suspicion. Managing a million refugees of any kind is a challenge, and when the starving, desperate masses are bizarre-looking, tentacled creatures (soon nicknamed “prawns” due to their resemblance to shrimp) with an unknown language, problems are bound to ensue. The aliens are soon surrounded by fences and guards; District 9 becomes essentially a concentration camp; and quickly the opportunity to establish true communication with the prawns is lost. The prawns build themselves shelters which form into a shanty town; Johannesburg finds itself with another impoverished minority group; and human-alien interaction devolves into the spheres of crime, law enforcement, and exploitation.

Into this morass is thrown Alien Affairs agent Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley). Wikus is a loveably dorky bureaucrat who gets assigned the job of relocating the “prawns” to a reservation miles from human habitation. He provides comic relief with his sweater vest and clipboard, trying to boss around military commandos, but he is capable of surprisingly callous cruelty because he views the aliens as nothing more than animals. That begins to change when he gets exposed to a substance that begins to slowly turn him into one of them.

Sharlto deserves some credit, by the way, for a really excellent performance in his first feature film. He is on-screen for probably 90% of the movie, and he is as funny as he is intense. His next film looks to be the “A-Team” movie, which I don’t know if I’ll be watching, but I do hope to see this guy again.

“District 9” is the kind of movie that makes me feel good about the future of movies. On a budget of $30 million (probably less than the marketing budget alone for “Avatar”), first-time director Neill Blomkamp has made an action movie that is vigorously entertaining and thought-provoking. The story is obviously inspired by South Africa’s racially fraught history, but the lessons translate equally well to the American experience with the Indians, or even to the screwed-up events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. The point that struck me the most in the film was how, when finally presented with intelligent, alien life, humans so quickly gave up on understanding and settled for contempt and exploitation.

The story behind the story of this film is that Blomkamp wrote and made a short film about the aliens called “Alive in Joburg,” which came to the attention of “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. Jackson recognized a fellow genius and tapped Blomkamp to direct a Halo adaptation. When that movie fell through, Jackson apparently offered Blomkamp the chance to turn “Alive in Joburg” into a full-length feature, and thank goodness he did. In a season when all the attention is on movies in 3D, it is nice to see that filmmakers can still entertain us just by making the characters and the story three-dimensional.

4.5 stars out of 5

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