STARRING: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike, Elizabeth Mkandawie, John Summer, William Allen Young, Greg Melvill-Smith, Nick Blake, Morena Busa Sesatsa, Themba Nkosi, Mzwandile Nqoba, Barry Strydom, Jed Brophy, Louis Minnaar, Vanessa Haywood

2009, 112 Minutes, Directed by:
Neill Blomkamp

First-time director Neil Blomkamp were supposed to have directed a movie adaptation of the hugely popular Halo videogame, with Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) producing. When plans for that project fell through due to cost considerations, Blomkamp pitched the idea for District 9 instead. It shows. District 9’s action climax filled with ultraviolent mayhem is a mouth-watering foretaste of what a Halo movie would have been like . . .

As if South Africa doesn’t have enough problems of its own - being a developing Third World country wracked by extreme poverty, crime and AIDS and all that – a giant flying saucer appears out of nowhere to hover menacingly over Johannesburg, the country’s most populous city.

This isn’t an alien invasion however. The saucer may be filled with about a million alien life forms, but the aliens appear to be listless refugees with no particular explanation for how they came to be there, or what exactly they want. It also appears that they can’t – or won’t – go home. These illegal aliens may not be of the variety that seep through the border from neighboring Zimbabwe, but the net effect is the same: their presence creates an instant social problem as the aliens become a new social underclass that are forced to live in tin shacks surrounding Johannesburg.

Sci-fi fans will spot similarities between District 9’s premise and the 1988 film Alien Nation that starred James Caan and Mandy Patinkin, which was later made into a television series. In that film alien refugees became the latest minority in the multi-ethnic melting pot that is Los Angeles. Like that film, the aliens also arrived in giant flying saucer-like spaceships. But that is where the similarities end.

Whereas the aliens in Alien Nation were of the Star Trek-lite variety being played by human actors with spotted bald makeup, the aliens in District 9 are, well, truly alien. They resemble giant insects and are immediately dubbed “prawns” by the human populace. Their sheer alienness makes their integration into human society difficult – if not outright impossible. Soon the city of Johannesburg is littered with Apartheid era-style “Humans Only” signs. The alien designs – CGI creations by Peter Jackson’s legendary New Zealand WETA effects outfit – while not particularly original are very well done.

Call it species segregation instead of racial segregation, but it is It is Apartheid all over again. The sprawling poverty-stricken shanty town in which the aliens are made to live is actually called District 9, an allusion to District 6, the name of a so-called “non-White” neighborhood that was bulldozed in the ‘Sixties by South Africa’s Apartheid regime.

20 years pass. District 9 is now a wretched hive of scum and villainy that will make even Obi-Wan Kenobi pee his robes. The local human populace despise the aliens, and the aliens’ peculiar habits and addictive predilection for tinned cat food haven’t been making things easy for themselves either. District 9 is now plagued by anarchic lawlessness. An international company named Multi-National United (MNU) is tasked with handling the alien “situation” by forcibly relocating them to what is practically an oversized concentration camp. Like the South African government, MNU isn’t all that concerned with the aliens’ welfare either. Instead they are only concerned with the potentially lucrative alien weapons technology. Alien technology is much more advanced than our own. The problem is however that it is biological in nature, which means that as much as we would like to, humans can’t use the powerful alien weaponry. It requires alien DNA.

"District 9 is a wretched hive of scum and villainy that will make even Obi-Wan Kenobi pee his robes!"

In charge of the forced alien relocation is Wikus van der Merwe (excellent newcomer Sharlto Copley). Wikus is a South African Chuck, the put-upon nerd as bureaucrat – well-meaning, but ineffectual. Wikus’ first day on the job isn’t going too well. Obviously the aliens are hostile to the move and getting them to sign their eviction notices requires both a show of force and bribery (tins of cat food!). However whilst investigating a suspected alien criminal hangout, Wikus contracts an alien virus that slowly begins to alter his DNA. Suddenly Wikus is the most wanted man in the world because he could be the key to unlocking all that alien weapons tech . . .

Many made-for-DVD genre movies such as Scorpion King 2, Starship Troopers 3: Marauder and Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King are filmed in South Africa. Most of these movies make a point of disguising the fact that they were shot in South Africa. District 9 is very different because its South African location is actually intrinsic to the plot. It has a very South African flavor to it, right from the various accents on display to the almost post-apocalyptic Sowetan landscapes. That however doesn’t mean that the story is limited to the South African experience. Its storyline may seem to be a direct metaphor for the recent xenophobic social unrest in that country, but its themes are much more universal than that as any country which has grappled with issues such as illegal immigrants and racial discrimination will attest. “In South Africa,” actor Sharlto Copley says in the film’s production notes, “we have to deal with issues that generally people around the world try to sweep under the rug.”

District 9 could just as easily have been set in Los Angeles or Washington D.C. and the final story would probably have been roughly the same. But the exotic South African setting gives the movie just that special edge over whitebread Vancouver settings. Even a top secret genetic research laboratory seems more like an alien abattoir than the clean, sterile facilities one usually gets to see in shows such as The X-Files. South Africans will of course delight in the spot-on depiction of local conditions. (One quibble though: onscreen text consistently misspells Van der Merwe – probably the most common Afrikaner surname - as Van de Merwe. It is the sort of detail that one would expect director Neill Blomkamp, an ex-pat South African, to get right.)

But that doesn’t mean that District 9 is a dry dissertation on social issues. Nothing of the sort in fact. The movie can be best described as Alien Nation meets Black Hawk Down (I never though I’d ever get to say those words). The last half-an-hour in which MNU soldiers, aliens and Nigerian criminals battle it out is as if one of the Transformers went to Somalia to kick some serious butt. The sequence that seems inspired by the over-the-top ultraviolence of Robocop. Like that movie, District 9 is bloody and gory. But it also shares a black sense of humor with Paul Verhoeven’s original 1987 flick.

The film itself is shot in a faux documentary style replete with talking heads and excerpts from news broadcasts and snatches of security cam footage. But unlike other hand-held camera epics such as Cloverfield one never feels the need to reach for the Dramamine. So if you’re prone to motion sickness, don’t worry. The end result is always energetic and visually arresting. The violence is visceral and the African textures tough and gritty.

To be put it blunt: District 9 kicks ass and we’re not just saying this out of some misguided sense of patriotism either (the present author happens to be South African). Most South African movies are either low-brow slapstick comedies that make Disaster Movie seem like the height of sophistication. Or they are depressing social dramas that make you want to gnaw at your wrists. District 9 is neither: it is tough, gritty, thought-provoking, darkly humorous flick filled with explosive action. (Make sure you see it in theatres instead of waiting for the DVD.)

That is not to say that the movie is without its faults. The second half of the film isn’t as intoxicating as the first half. The action finale seems taken straight out of a computer game and makes the same mistake as the recent robot slugfests in Transformers 2: it looses sight of the human interest. Newbie director Neil Blomkamp also seems at times to be in too much of a hurry. Several plot points are muddied. One trailer let drop the intriguing possibility that the aliens wanted to leave Earth, but weren’t allowed to do so by Earth authorities. The movie itself however does not include any of this footage.

District 9’s strengths however far outweigh its weaknesses. The cast of mostly unknowns are always game. The special effects and makeup are top notch. The SFX team also does a remarkable job at making the aliens both menacing and sympathetic whenever the script requires it. (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”) The pumping Kwaito tunes. Director of photography Trent Opalach making familiar South African landscapes look like Ridley Scott’s Somalia. Production designer Philip Ivey’s gritty, realistic and often gory sets.

If we were flippant we would have said that District 9 is the best South African science fiction movie ever made (it is also the only South African SF movie ever made). But the truth is that in a summer dotted by mediocre efforts such as Terminator Salvation, Wolverine and Transformers 2, District 9 is the best sci-fi action flick of 2009 . . .


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