District 9 (2009)


Once upon a time, over sunny South African skies (not London or Tokyo or Des Moines take note but Johannesburg), a massive alien spacecraft stalls, parking itself long enough for its neighboring and painfully curious earthlings to send up a work crew to the silent, sinister sentinel, bracing for a close encounter. Boring into the mother ship’s aged, metallic hull the reconnaissance team makes a surprising discovery: hundreds of overcrowded, undernourished crustacean-like creatures clearly in need of some intervention. And in Earth’s infinite wisdom the hapless, helpless aliens are extracted and relocated to an equally cramped and inhospitable shantytown on the planet’s surface known as District 9.
     20 odd years later the D-9 slum’s overpopulation has become a very real concern for the local government. They appoint a legal overseer—the MNU (Multi-National United)—to resettle these “prawns” (derog.) to a more manageable but no less overcrowded refugee camp on the outskirts of town. Heading up the relocation committee is an affable yet mostly ineffectual leader-drone named Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), whose appointment has more to do with hubris than any particular skill set on his part (his father-in-law is a key MNU stockholder; his wife, Tania, eminently blonde).
     While engaged in the eviction process proper, documented by a roving MNU camera crew in the film’s early sequences, Wikus is accidentally exposed to the extra-terrestrial’s biotechnology and suddenly his role—and intrinsic planetary value—takes on elevated proportions, much to our hapless protagonist’s physical and emotional discomfort (vis-a-vis The Fly).
     What started out as a six-minute short, 2005’s Alive in Joburg, has been turned into a fantastic 112-minute science fiction feature will a little help (to the tune of some $30 million) from ‘Lord of the Rings helmer Peter Jackson. (‘Joburg‘s director, the then 25 year old Neill Blomkamp, was originally slated to helm Jackson’s take on the video game extravaganza Halo but that never came to fruition.) It’s amazing what a little well-appointed cash can do.
     Written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell and directed by the former (himself a South African), District 9 is an extraordinary achievement. It’s something George Orwell, or H.G. Wells, might have written in their heyday. Certainly the screenwriters lose a little focus towards the very end of the picture, where this quasi-pseudo-documentary cum political allegory morphs into a Transformers/Terminator clone, but mostly this is smart, evocative filmmaking that manages to put real human emotion up on the screen alongside humor, imagination, action/adventure, social commentary, attention to
detail, and amazing special effects, all in deftly managed amounts.
     Speaking of special effects, the prawns are so well integrated into the piece that it’s hard to tell—or even notice—that they’re computer generated, not a man in a shrimp suit (too thin a waist for one thing). And speaking of a man in a suit, Copley is no less than amazing in his formative feature-length role, a bumbling Borat, Dutch-style by way of John Connor.
     To summarize, then, I will say simply this (in a lazy attempt to paraphrase the film’s punchy tagline). Neill Blomkamp: you are definitely welcome here.

(c) 2009 David N. Butterworth