Related Articles: Movies, All

District 9

Alien Nation

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Director Neill Blomkamp’s allegorical flourishes are unsubtle but effective in District 9, a sometimes brilliant sci-fi concoction that pits the people of Johannesburg against a community of alien refugees (known as “prawns”) who arrive on earth and are quickly scuttled into a shantytown surrounded by barbed wire. Victims of government-sanctioned apartheid that seems to grow more virulent by the minute, the prawns are afforded little compassion, and begin to lash out accordingly.

Enter Wikus Van De Merwe (excellent newcomer Sharlto Copley), the lackey of a Halliburton-like private security firm charged with moving the prawns from their current slum to one farther removed from the city. Infected by a mysterious alien fluid, he begins to undergo a Kafkaesque transformation -- he’s turning into one of them! -- and soon finds himself the target of a relentless manhunt. His bosses want him to donate his body to science; he’d prefer to keep it intact.

District 9 works best in the early going, when Blomkamp and fellow first-time screenwriter Terri Tatchell take a vérité-style approach to documenting the history of the prawns, whose massive spaceship has been hovering in the South African sky for 20 years while its onetime inhabitants have been exploited below. It’s an easy metaphor, but a thought-provoking one: Treated like animals, some of the prawns begin to act like them, but there is a resilient (albeit beleaguered) dignity in the struggle of the rest to assimilate.

When Blomkamp fast-forwards to the present, the action escalates, and District 9 devolves into a prolonged shootout, ideas be damned. It’s disappointing to watch an otherwise high-minded movie settle into such a predictable groove -- after a clever, twist-filled 90 minutes or so, the third act is all auto-pilot -- but even at its most pedestrian, Blomkamp’s grim fantasy is never boring. He leaves us with a melancholy ending that hints rather bluntly at a sequel, and based on his work here, the prospect is not unappealing.