It might look like b-grade fodder, but District 9 is an entertaining sci-fi actioner that resonates with its damning commentary on human behaviour.
Although District 9 is the feature debut of director Neill Blomkamp, the way he shoots and weaves the films varied formats would make many believe otherwise. Faux documentary, news footage (real and staged), and interviews with talking heads are spliced within a conspiracy thriller-cum-sci-fi urban war film, which recalls but does not play slave to the likes of Alien Nation and RoboCop.
Based on Blomkamp’s short Alive in Jo’burg, the film begins with the arrival of an alien aircraft over Johannesburg, South Africa. Stuck adrift in Earths atmosphere, it is decided that the private organisation MNU (Multi National United) are to “do the right thing” and cut the ships famished inhabitants out of their tin can, and situate them in a camp named District 9.
20 years on and the camp has become a slum. Public unrest forces the MNU to relocate the aliens to a new camp outside of town. Leading the raid is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an overly enthusiastic pencil pusher with a glimmer in his eye and dorky moustache in full force.
During the roundup, Wikus becomes infected with a mysterious black liquid, and -much like David Cronenberg’s The Fly- slowly and gruesomely transforms into an alien being. This leaves him on the outs with the human race, and in unison with the aliens where he experiences the barbarity towards them.
As a result District 9 can be politically aggressive in tone, with scenes of law enforcement brutality beating aliens evoking memories prior to the L.A. Riots, and its South African setting reminding many of its apartheid past.
Its exposition of human beings as territorial and exploitative creatures is familiar, but can still cut to the bone.
Thankfully, Blomkamp does not let his film get bogged down too much by its themes, reminding himself that District 9 is, after all, a FX heavy alien action film, and quite a good one at that.
The mesh of special effects -- created with a budget equal to the catering bill on Transformers- with its ghetto backdrop is stunningly good; while its portrayal of the bug looking aliens as homesick scavengers, hooked on cat food and constantly beaten down by the Man, is an innovative approach needed to differentiate itself from the hordes of extraterrestrials before them.
A disappointment is its action sequences, which although thrilling, can feel like watching a video game. Perhaps a runoff from Blomkamp’s and producer Peter Jackson’s failed attempt to adapt popular video game Halo?
Yet that minor hang up aside, District 9 is a refreshing sci-fi that engrosses on many levels.