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District 9: An unusual invasion

by Glen Baity

Whether they’re blowing up New York or leaving crop circles on Mel Gibson’s farm, nine out 10 aliens agree: If you’re looking to make contact, start in America.

The first unusual thing you’ll notice about District 9 is that this close encounter happens hundreds of miles from our shores. It does not suffer for it. The bottle rocket from Johannesburg comes to you courtesy of Lord of the Rings auteur Peter Jackson, whose stamp of approval earned this smart, gritty genre piece a slot at the tail end of US blockbuster season. First-time director Neill Blomkamp, who was previously tapped to direct Universal’s doomed Halo movie, has not let Jackson down with his new assignment. Like a lot of great science fiction, District 9 uses aliens and rayguns to explore big themes. Here it’s apartheid and its lingering stain on South Africa, and Blomkamp, who lived there from birth through age 18, manages to talk about it without preaching, or distracting from his workmanlike piece of entertainment. The film takes place in modern day, more than 20 years after a giant spaceship descended on Johannesburg. It sat motionless for months before authorities broke in, finding a lost, malnourished race of aliens, dubbed “prawns” by the locals for their unfortunate resemblance to bottomfeeding crustaceans. The word quickly became a pejorative as the country sagged under the financial burden of caring for the listless race, which was permanently sequestered in a ghetto called District 9. The masses don’t know it, but the government, working through a company called Multi- National United, is keeping the aliens earthbound until it can figure out how the race’s advanced weaponry works. By 2009, anti-alien sentiment has reached a fever pitch and MNU, led by clueless bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been tasked with uprooting the aliens and resettling them far outside the city. The mission goes awry when Wikus is infected with a substance that alters his DNA and begins his slow transformation into one of the hated prawns. What follows is his mad scramble to uncover the secrets of District 9 and reverse the mutation. Through a somewhatmuddled mixture of documentary-style and narrative footage, Blomkamp stages a fast-moving, bloody story that doesn’t let up until the credits roll. He also co-wrote the script and makes the bold choice of crafting an unsympathetic main character. When we meet him, Wikus seems amicable enough, but five minutes in District 9 reveals him as a callous bully. Even when the tables are turned against him, he’s motivated entirely by self-interest and strikes out frequently at an alien race he considers inherently inferior. He’s a hard guy to root for, but Copley does a great job searching for the humanity in the character. The other principal character is a CGI alien, christened “Christopher Johnson” by the administrators of District 9, who along with the rest of his race looks impressively real. It’s a testament to the talent on display at Canadian company Image Engine that the effects are so good, especially considering the film was made for a fraction of the average big-budget popcorn flick. But for all its summer movie trappings, District 9 never becomes standard fare. An American version of this film would culminate in a massive alien revolt, complete with spaceship vs. F-16 air battles a la Independence Day. That moment never really comes — these aliens aren’t out for revenge, even if they should feel entitled to it. Their behavior is that of a species that has been beaten down repeatedly and denied any hope of a brighter future, and kudos to Blomkamp for not going the easy route with his plot. Some viewers might be frustrated that he never tackles the big mystery — namely, the question of what happened to the aliens before they arrived on earth. But the story isn’t about the aliens’ journey through space, it’s about how earth ends up being a disastrous destination for them, and what that says about us. On that score, it’s a success. Whatever else District 9 may be, perhaps its most attractive quality is what it is not: a pre-existing property. That’s right, if you can believe it, there was no cheesy District 9 television show from the ’70s, no line of action figures, no book, no comic book, not even a District 8 to build on (though the ending points directly to a District 10 in the nearish future). Most times of the year, but especially during the summer, you’re more apt to find a real, live extraterrestrial than a movie that didn’t start out as something else. As I write this, audiences are already raving about this science fiction allegory from foreign shores. Is it because it’s that good, or is it because it shows them something they haven’t seen before? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but for studio execs on the lookout for their next D-grade Marvel Comic adaptation, it’s a question worth pondering.

To comment on this article, e-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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