August 20, 2009

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District 9 (R)
Extraterrestrials become just another group of illegal aliens in District 9, a dark and messagey sci-fi movie.

District 9 floats in and out of a kind of documentary style featuring interviews and “news footage” that set up the backstory: It’s Johannesburg, South Africa, some 20 years after a spaceship appeared above the city. After the ship appeared, the humans traveled up to it and found inside a large number of beings huddling in the dark, apparently near starvation. The humans brought them down and revived them. Eventually, however, the international attention and aid faded away and the South Africans moved the aliens (derogatorily referred to as “prawns” because of their vaguely shellfish appearance) into a refugee camp — District 9 — that quickly became a slum indifferently watched over by Multi-National United, a company contracted to deal with the aliens.

Now, decades later, the slums are awash in trash, filled with ramshackle huts and controlled by gangsters who charge the prawns exorbitant rates for cat food (which is much desired by the aliens) as well as for more illicit things like human weapons and sex.

One of the things the gangsters will take in exchange are alien weapons — items that the government and Multi-National United have also stockpiled but haven’t been able to use. It seems that alien weaponry only works when wielded by aliens. So in addition to keeping the aliens quarantined and in wretched conditions, the humans are still hoping to exploit them for their seemingly advanced weapons technology.

Into this tinderbox comes Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a midlevel Multi-National United official whose job it is to move the aliens from their current slum in Johannesburg to another camp far outside the city where human and alien tension will be, if not less, then at least less seen by the world. While in District 9, he discovers a strange shack filled with what he takes to be weapon parts and a canister filled with an odd liquid. After the liquid sprays on him, he starts to feel ill — throwing up and “bleeding” a black substance from his nose. When he is eventually admitted to the hospital, he discovers that his arm has started to change. Though he had only hours earlier been laughing as he killed alien babies, Wikus discovers he now has a prawn-like claw where his arm should be.

Karma, she is filled with irony.

Now hunted by the humans — both for being part alien and for having DNA that might allow him to operate alien weapons — Wikus heads back to District 9 to try to figure out how to stop his transformation, meeting up with Christopher, an alien who may be able to help him. Christopher, who is desperate to keep his young son away from the Multi-National United soldiers, helps Wikus, who might hold the key to a plan of his own.

One of the great things about Battlestar Galactica was that, with humanity on the brink of extinction and fighting a more powerful enemy to the death, the humans still harbored religious and ethnic prejudices and occasionally tried to kill each other for stupid reasons. It is a grittier, more honest view of how people actually act than, say, your clean and peaceful Star Trek universe, and it made for a more interesting, thoughtful show. And that’s what’s best about District 9. Despite everything South Africa has been through in its history and despite the world-changing revelation that there is life elsewhere in the universe, the government still separates these “others” into camps, leaving them as prey for petty criminals and treating them with violence and contempt. Prejudice, discord, moral line-crossing, District 9 has all of that and it gives the story more heft than your standard E.T. tale.

The movie also has in Wikus a fun, morally ambiguous central character. We start off disliking him — he has the schlubby appearance and clueless demeanor of a managerial drone but the work he is doing is downright genocidal. Despite the lobster-y claws and insect-y faces of the aliens, it is the humans who are truly creepy. As the movie goes on, we feel something more like sympathy for the hapless Wikus though with a complex “reap what you sow” edge to it.

Not exactly your feel-good summer blockbuster approach to sci-fi, but District 9 is dark and complex in a way that has always appealed to sci-fi fans looking to work out nuanced issues and philosophical questions. You know, with aliens. B

Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. Directed by Neill Blomkamp and written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9 is an hour and 53 minutes long and is distributed by TriStar Pictures.