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District 9

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 08/14/09 04:35:00

"Who needs a "Halo" live-adaptation when we have "District 9?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

As another sequel, prequel, and reboot-filled summer blockbuster season winds down, genre fans have turned their attention to "District 9," a science-fiction/action film produced by Peter Jackson ("King Kong," "The Lord of the Rings," "Heavenly Creatures") and directed by his protégé Neill Blomkamp (making his feature-length debut after their collaboration on the "Halo" live-action adaptation fell through). Thanks to a unique setting (modern-day South Africa), a subtext-rich (if underdeveloped) Apartheid theme, influences drawn from other science fiction films and television series (e.g., "Alien Nation," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Independence Day," "The Fly," "V: The Miniseries," "The Outer Limits"), "District 9" delivers where so many other, much more expensive blockbusters this summer have tried and failed (e.g., "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen," "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra").

The aliens we encounter in District 9 aren’t benevolent like the ones found in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. They aren’t malevolent like the aliens in Independence Day, War of the Worlds, or countless other alien invasion films. In one important sense, the aliens in District 9 are similar to the ones found in Alien Nation, space-lost refugees from a distant star or galaxy, incapable of returning home, permanently stranded on Earth (Johannesburg, South Africa, to be exact). Unlike the aliens in Alien Nation, the aliens in District 9 aren’t humanoid, they’re insect-like aliens nicknamed “prawns” for their antennae, facial appendages, and crustacean-like shells.

Rescued from a depowered mothership and forced, presumably, by the United Nations and the government of South Africa into an overcrowded, unhygienic refugee camp dubbed “District 9,” the aliens drift into a purposeless, aimless existence. They scavenge through rubbish for materials they use to build makeshift shelters or find discarded, half-eaten food tins (they’re partial to cat food). The UN and the South African government turned to Multi-National United (MNU), a for-profit corporation, to keep order within District 9 and control alien interaction with humans outside the camp. But with violence between humans and aliens rising and deteriorating conditions in the refugee camps, MNU, with government backing, decides to move the aliens to a new refugee camp located 200 miles outside Johannesburg.

Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an officious MNU bureaucrat married to Tania (Vanessa Haywood), the daughter of a senior MNU executive, Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar), finds himself promoted to the head of the resettlement project. Along with a camera crew documenting the resettlement project, an MNU management trainee, Fundiswa Mhlanga (Mandla Gaduka), and a well-armed NMU team, Wikus begins serving the arduous process of relocating the aliens, a process that includes forcing the aliens to sign an official document agreeing to the resettlement. Searching a shack for alien weapons, Wikus finds and inadvertently opens a container containing a viscous, black liquid. Almost immediately, a disgruntled alien injures Wikus. Little does Wikus know that the black liquid, slowly recovered from alien technology, has infected him with alien DNA. Wikus' rapidly accelerating transformation into an alien makes him an invaluable commodity to the MNU, which hopes to financially exploit alien technology (only aliens can fire weapons or operate alien machinery), and a ruthless Nigerian gang that wants to exploit Wikus for their own ends.

Blomkamp and his co-screenwriter, Terri Tatchell, fill in twenty-plus years of backstory through, at least initially, a mock documentary approach that mixes archival (or archival-looking) footage of the aliens’ arrival, first contact, and the deteriorating human-alien relationship over the last two decades with “talking head” interviews, from authoritative-sounding government officials, scientists, and everyday South Africans who express their unhappiness with the status quo. Of course, the aliens-in-South-Africa storyline is an obvious allusion to the long history of Apartheid in South Africa (or racial segregation elsewhere), a reference Blomkamp returns to repeatedly through footage of historical riots in Soweto and the staged interactions between the aliens and their fallible human keepers.

If Blomkamp has any large message he wants to impart with District 9, it’s not a positive one. With the exception of Wikus, whose inner transformation (from indifference to respect and admiration of the aliens) occurs primarily because of his outer transformation, and one or two secondary characters, the humans in District 9 are indifferent, uncompassionate, distrustful, hateful, or just greedy. Blomkamp splits the villain role between MNU, a for-profit corporation modeled after Blackwater, the military contractor currently embroiled in multiple litigations for its actions in Iraq, and the Nigerian gang. Why Blomkamp included a superstitious, violent gang from Nigeria, a non-proximate country in Africa, seems to make little sense, unless there’s a cultural context non-South Africans aren’t likely to get by simply watching District 9

Blomkamp is on surer ground when it comes to action. Subtext, themes, and racial representation become secondary, especially in the second half when a desperate Wikus begins to take radical steps to reverse the transformation and "District 9" moves from a suspenseful chase film into intense, "Black Hawk Down"-style, effects-heavy set pieces. Mixing almost seamless CGI (e.g., ships, aliens, weapons, and even a mecha-style armored suit) with documentary-inspired, handheld camerawork, Blomkamp proves himself capable of choreographing violent, chaotic (but always easy to follow) action. Don’t be surprised if a Hollywood studio or producer taps Blomkamp for an upcoming summer tentpole, maybe even the long-dormant "Halo" project Blomkamp was once slated to direct.

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