Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, David James, Jason Cope, Vanessa Haywood
Running time: 112 mins
Born in the wake of the Halo movie's spectacular demise, director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson's first contact tale District 9 is one of those rare films that appears to have emerged from a moment of big studio madness. Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell are untested feature filmmakers; leading man Sharlto Copley had never acted before; its budget, though a modest $30 million, had to cover heavy visual effects work; and the setting is Johannesburg. It's a risky proposition for Sony Pictures, pinning their post-summer blockbuster hopes on District 9, even with the support of Jackson. Hollywood isn't usually comfortable throwing caution to the wind (hence money machines Transformers and GI Joe), but in Blomkamp's film it has found a winner.
Set in the years after a massive alien craft appears over South Africa's largest city, the story follows Wikus van der Merwe (Copley), an agent for Multi-National United (MNU), the firm contracted to manage the alien visitors. Wikus has little compassion for the extra-terrestrial plight - he's also entrenched in bureaucracy and not particularly good at his job (it's as if Murray from Flight Of The Conchords has been thrown onto the frontlines of a war documentary). After inadvertently triggering an alien device, he's infected with a virus that has a drastic effect on his body. He begins to grow a hideous claw on his left hand and gains the ability to fire alien weaponry. This makes him a wanted man, forcing him to retreat into District 9, the segregated area for the non-humans he once policed.
District 9's great strength is its ability to subvert genre expectations - these aliens have arrived with a whimper not a bang, their ship shunning the usual glitz and glamour of America and just going kaput over South Africa. The creatures themselves bring little in the way of technological advances, they're ugly (dubbed "prawns") and have a taste for cat food. Earth's humanitarian efforts quickly fizzle out for these undesirable refugees and they're given residence in the shanty villages of District 9. The location supports the thematic plates Blomkamp is spinning, with parallels cleverly drawn to the apartheid and South Africa's unfortunate history with race relations. These elements push District 9 into a higher realm of science fiction as it uses its aliens and visual effects not as window dressing, but as a way to examine the blacker side of human nature.
What stops District 9 from becoming a truly outstanding film is its journey into loud, predictable shoot 'em up territory. It's a story with something on its mind, only to lose some of that in the finale as Blomkamp makes the Halo movie he and Jackson were cooking up. District 9 is 2009's second hugely impressive sci-fi film after Moon. Both put fresh spins on well-explored concepts, and with helmers Blomkamp and Duncan Jones waxing lyrical about their love of the genre, the pair may well turn out to be the saviours of science fiction.
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