District 9 is a hodgepodge of science fiction, action and politics set in Johannesburg, South Africa dealing with the oppression of a stranded alien race whose mothership is incapable of leaving Earth’s orbit. As a result of fear and misunderstanding, human’s have wrangled up the surviving aliens and given them their own slum, dubbed “District 9,” just outside of the city.
It is in District 9 the refugee aliens trade weaponry with local Nigerian voodoo militants in exchange for cat food, are derogatorily referred to as “prawns” and are now being rounded up and moved to an even less impressive fenced in environment one would be hard-pressed not to call a concentration camp. To say the film’s political setting and subject matter mirrors the Apartheid in South Africa is such a “no duh” statement it hardly bears mentioning, but when it comes down to it District 9‘s real world parallels help greatly with the story’s intrigue. This isn’t to say it’s all roses as the second act gets quite boring and the plot is filled with several holes, but the film’s third act is likely to have audiences walking out raving as it makes up for any moments of tedium in-between.
Why do the aliens trade weapons instead of using them? How does the mothership hover over Earth if it has no power? Why are human weapons at all effective against superior alien weaponry? Don’t worry about it, is the message I got, but they are all valid questions as this film dwells in reality with an opening reflecting a documentary approach to the story and extraordinary CGI proving $30 million can go a long way if used effectively.
At the center of the story is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a likable employee placed in charge of the alien relocation. Copley, like writer/director Neill Blomkamp, is new to the world of feature films with District 9 serving as his first as an actor just as this is Blomkamp’s first feature film as a director based on his 2005 short Alive in Joburg (watch that here). My complaints about plot holes aside, Blomkamp does show talent as an action director considering once things get started they really get started. A break-in sequence midway through the film and the entire climax is outstanding. Among the only distractions are the previously mentioned Nigerian gangsters and the clichÃ©d head of military that snarls his way through the entire feature.
Copley’s performance as Wikus is an interesting one, and draws your attention and scrutiny scene after scene. He comes off as an innocent and caring family man until he sets out to evict the aliens. He serves the eviction notices without compassion, refers to them as “prawns” without a second thought and even when he’s witness to all the secrets to District 9 his motivations are ultimately self-centered until there is no other choice. Audiences will find themselves torn as to whom to cheer for as the film shifts from one scene to the next, which comes as a result of an excellent performance by Copley as well as quality alien special effects, with particular attention paid to the eyes of the main alien protagonist.
An emotional connection to the aliens is imperative to the story, just as is the insensitive buffoonery of Wikus, but the development of each serve as the most boring part of the story. Blomkamp dedicates far too much time to the oppression of the aliens long after the audience is in on the details, but fortunately he makes up for it with action sequences filled with alien technology and exploding human beings that will have you walking away satisfied.
District 9, for what it’s worth, is a breath of fresh air. It’s an intriguing science fiction with originality and thought behind it, but not as entirely unique as it may first appear. While it does utilize spectacular effects, it does it on a minimal budget and it doesn’t rely solely on said effects to tell its story. The story itself isn’t altogether perfect, but it shows thought, which is more than I can say for other films of its sort. When it comes to big budget summer films, it’s interesting to see the one that carried a modest $30 million price tag showing the greatest effort to tell an actual story. Now if we could just get the $250 million films to follow suit.