Review - DISTRICT 9 Remembers What Makes Great Sci-Fi

In District 9, the ingenious new science fiction action film, First Contact is nothing like what we expected.

There's no grand entrance as in , or even a structured invasion like in .”The aliens, in fact, arrive in quite similar fashion to how many illegal immigrants show up on our shores.

Hurt, hungry, and desperate for help.

The film begins 28 years after the aliens' arrival in 1982, when their spaceship suddenly appeared above Johannesburg, South Africa. The Prawns, as they are derisively nicknamed by humans, have been leaving in a settlement called District 9.

And they have become restless and dangerous.

To many of the locals, the aliens are not just a threat, they’re freeloaders. Their welfare is paid for by tax dollars, the humans complain, that could be used to help some of our own.

As confrontations between humans and aliens escalate, world leaders decide to bring in a private contractor, Multi-National United, to relocate them. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were.

While MNU represents the latest variation on Hollywood’s Villain Du Jour – the dastardly private military contractor – it is neither over–the–top evil () or cartoonish (hello, ) in its portrayal.

MNU’s motives aren’t laced with contrived screenwriter motivation. They’re after profits, pure and simple. And they see the golden goose sitting right there inside District 9.

Because while the aliens brought no highly advanced technology, they did come with an arsenal unlike anything humans have ever laid their destructive hands on. Weaponry that can only be operated with alien DNA. Cracking that riddle is the company’s secret goal.

The key is a MNU middleman named Wikus van der Merwe. An average Joe who happens to be married to the boss’s daughter (the world’s WORST father–in–law), he is picked to lead the relocation. But after he contracts a mysterious virus, he quickly becomes the most wanted man alive. Everyone from MNU’s R&D team to the police to the Nigerian smugglers who have set up shop inside District 9, want a piece of him.

Desperate, he hides in District 9. There he strikes an uneasy partnership with an alien named Christopher. They can help each other get what they want. If they can stay alive.

The actor portraying Wikus, Sharlto Copley, makes an audacious feature acting debut here. Equal parts clueless, compassionate, and even conniving at times, Wikus isn’t a man who rises to the occasion out of some sense of heroism. He’s not even that likable for much of the movie. What he does, he does out of a basic human need for survival.

The film’s pace is relentless, as is the violence. People and Prawns alike get cut down in rapid fashion, and if this film didn’t set a record for exploding midsections, we need a recount.

Just as impressive were the visual effects. Nearly all aliens onscreen were CGI, and it’s seamless. The believability of the effects – helped greatly by the cinematography and editing – are even more impressive when you consider some of the lackluster FX we’ve seen this summer in films with 5 times District 9’s $30 million budget.

Director Neill Blomkamp (he co–authored the screenplay with Terri Tatchell) draws convincing efforts from all the actors. But it’s his attention to detail in depicting life in District 9 that is most impressive.

Think about this. When was the last time a movie with aliens wasn’t set in a big American city?

The South African setting is a key factor in the film’s success. Because just as the themes here are largely unfamiliar, so is the film’s look.

Littered with trash, dotted with ramshackle shacks and surrounded by fencing, District 9 is a refugee camp in every sense of the word. Picture the favelas in and you have a sense of the world the aliens exist in here.

How do the aliens pass the time? They’ve developed a peculiar obsession with cat food, to the point where they will trade anything for even a few cans. They have also picked up an affinity for other… aspects of human culture. Let’s just say that the world’s oldest profession is still going strong inside District 9.

Many of the themes of the film were based on Blomkamp’s experiences growing up in South Africa during apartheid. You’ll also be reminded of the refugee camps in the Sudan, and – if your memory goes back that far – of the Krome Detention Center camps in Miami in the early 80s, where Cubans who came on the Mariel Boatlift were placed.

District 9 takes our preconceived notions of alien encounters and turns them inside out.

It’s as much an immigration story as it is a sci–fi, alien invasion tale. Yes, it stands on its own as a compelling, edge–of–your–seat chase thriller. If you want to enjoy it on that level, go right ahead. But look behind the set pieces and scaly aliens. There is so much more going on there.

It’s the questions that District 9 raises about human (or alien) rights that make this as thought–provoking a science fiction picture as we’ve seen in years. Chief among those questions:

When the aliens finally do arrive, what the heck will we do with them?

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