'District 9' a science fiction landmark

Friday, August 14, 2009 | by: Mat DeKinder

Occasionally science fiction movies are about something other than explosions and urban-slang spewing robots. Honestly.

“District 9” is one of those rare sci-fi movies that dares to be more than superficial eye candy and in turn should be considered one of the best science-fiction films of the new millennium. But fear not true believers, plenty of stuff explodes as well.

“District 9” envisions a world where first-contact with alien life happened 20 years ago, but instead of ethereal, advanced beings filled with either benevolence or White-House-destroying malice descending on Washington D.C; these aliens are insect-like refugees who plant their mother ship above, of all places, Johannesburg, South Africa. 

As the two decades passed, this massive population of aliens brought more apathy than enlightenment to our little blue planet and with their broken space-ship constantly hovering above the city as a reminder that these uninvited guests weren’t going to be leaving any time soon, tensions quickly grew between the alien and human populations. To keep the peace, the aliens are forced to live in a segregated slum called District 9.

The movie condenses all this information down for us by presenting the film as a documentary of sorts. This device is used throughout with great effect as the story plays out through a mix of hand-held TV cameras, security cameras and hovering helicopter crews.

So about 10 minutes in you will be sitting back in your chair and smugly thinking to yourself, “Segregation plus South Africa equals Apartheid allegory! I knew those high school literature classes would eventually pay off.”

But “District 9” isn’t about to let you off that easily as the rabbit hole goes much deeper than a simple treatise on racism. 

The story follows Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley who delivers one of the most impressive acting debuts Hollywood has seen to date), a middling bureaucrat in a multi-national corporation who is charged with relocating the aliens from District 9 to a compound well outside of Johannesburg.

Wikus, like most humans, has very little regard for the aliens, derogatorily nicknamed “prawns.” He sees his job as removing a burden and a blight from the community, but as he advances into the heart of District 9 serving evictions with an armed escort Wikus gets more than he bargains for and he learns some disturbing secrets, not only about the aliens, but about the company he works for as well.

“District 9” was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, a first-time director who had been tabbed by producer Peter Jackson to direct a big-budget adaptation of the popular video game “Halo.” When the studios got cold feet and the “Halo” project fell through, Jackson and Blomkamp quickly scraped together some capital and made “District 9” for a relatively skimpy $30 million.

What’s impressive is that even with the thin budget, the special effects are astounding; especially the aliens who are realistic enough to make you forget the dark days of Jar-Jar Binks. Almost.

Blomkamp also does a good job of keeping his story from getting too heavy handed; even as the movie ultimately becomes about the exploitative nature of humanity with nobody getting a pass. It is hard to spot the villains as corporations, warlords and even the aliens themselves wear the black hats at different points in the film.

There is plenty of icky violence and outstanding action sequences in “District 9” to satisfy anyone looking for an easy summertime distraction, but this is a movie that is not afraid to ask some difficult questions or hesitant to point out that maybe the entire universe would be a better place if we all just stopped and listened to each other.

“District 9” is rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. 

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