Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Robert Hobbs
Running Time: 112 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
District 9 takes a very different approach to your typical alien invasion film, if you could classify this as such at all. The most successful stories dealing with extraterrestial life arriving on Earth are enriched with the knowledge that the primary focus shouldn't be on what the aliens look like, why they're here or even what they'll do. It should be what their arrival says about us and what it'll mean. First time writer/director Neill Blomkamp knows this and because he does we're taken on a journey that mirrors that of the film's protagonist, moving from a position of ignorance to understanding. We think we know what we're getting in the opening minutes until the movie changes the rules and becomes something else entirely.
Besides featuring the best lead performance in a film of its type since Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it's the kind of spirited production we wish Spielberg would put his name to again, evoking the rare mix of intelligence and excitement that should be a prerequisite for all summer event movies. That producing credit instead goes to The Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson, who apparently knows talent when he sees it. There are actually issues to think about and real conversations that can take place long after the dazzling action sequences conclude. It's everything Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen didn't even attempt to be.
The film opens with the aliens (demeaningly referred to as "prawns") having already arrived and parked their mothership above Johannesburg, South Africa. Upon their arrival they were confined to a secure government camp known as District 9, which has since deteriorated into a segregated slum that's now a breeding ground for crime and rioting. Assigned the unenviable task of evicting the aliens and relocating them to the newly formed District 10 is inexperienced beurocrat Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley). We follow him mock documentary style from house to house, while simultaneously being given video testimonials from his colleagues looking back on his actions, which undergo a dramatic shift when his own life hangs in the balance. His first day as a field operative ends disastrously, infecting him with an alien fluid that sends him to the hospital. Now his only hope for survival rests with the aliens he so callously treated.
District 9 is all about reversing expectations and shifting viewer allegiances. The opening half hour is presented in such a straightforward manner that we're forced to read what's happening as a gritty, bares bones documentary account of what would happen if aliens were absorbed into our society, then subsequently shunned from it. The shaky, hand-held camera work memorably employed in films like United 93 and Cloverfield categorizes the early action. Naturally, we're predisposed to support the government in their attempts to contain the extraterrestrials because we've been trained to do so based on every film, television series or novel on the subject. Further bolstering that is the presentation of the aliens themselves, who resemble ugly crustaceans and differ in no way from the menacing image of life from another planet we've come to expect.
While the field agent Wikus is initially presented as an insensitive jerk, his behavior comes more out of clueless ignorance than anything else and it isn't until he's infected with the alien virus that Blomkamp exploits all our preconcieved notions about the direction the story will take. The hunter becomes the hunted as Wilkus finds out just how quickly and willingly his own government will turn on even him to "protect" the country from this supposed threat. He must depend on an alien hilariously named "Christopher Johnson" whose very different mission is to return to his home planet safely with son C.J.
With all these great performances stacking up from previously unseen talents, 2009 just might be remembered as "The Year of the Unknown Actor." Sharlto Copley (who amazingly has never acted in a feature before) carries this entire film on his back for every scene and sells us completely on Wilkus' transformation, which feels constantly evolving rather than sudden. It never seems like he just becomes an action hero overnight because Copley presents a man in a desperate situation forced to summon up all the courage and integrity he has in order to survive. In the early scenes he so eerily recalls Peter Sellers in both manner and appearance with his bumbling demeanor that you could more easily envision him in the Pink Panther remake instead of Steve Martin. That's part of why the turn the character takes is so physically and emotionally shocking, and as equally shocking is how Copley can pull it off as believably as he does. A meek, mild-mannered nerd emerges as someone else as the film progresses and it's almost impossible to believe the same man who was stumbling door-to-door serving eviction notices becomes the monumentally important historical figure described in the film's closing video testimonials. The performance is just as strong and challenging as, say, Jeremy Renner's in The Hurt Locker, but the latter turn is destined to receive more acclaim if only due to the genre this film belongs to.
Those who complain the movie degenerates into standard action fare toward the final act do have a point, albeit a mostly irrelevant one. My question: What did you expect? There was no other way to resolve this story and at least the action we're getting is easy to follow, not marred by bad CGI, and most importantly, features characters we care about and have a rooting interest in seeing overcome the odds. This isn't mindless action because there's a story and real ideas to support it. The script earns the right to indulge itself with the end result providing just enough closure for satisfaction, but not too much. Given its settings and themes its impossible to overlook the obvious correlation to the apartheid-era events in South Africa (or even this country's own ugly history of racism and segregation), but that connection is there for us to either look deep into or ignore. It's never thrown in our faces in a heavy-handed way.
As it becomes glaringly apparent that the way the aliens are treated is unfair, Blomkamp cleverly gets you to care not only about the bond that forms between the rogue government employee and these aliens, but the even more important one between the alien and his son. As a result we're given a science fiction movie that works as both an allegory about human nature and an indispensable action event. If you can buy into the idea of an arrival of any kind taking place, it's plausible it could go down like this and our reaction would be just as harsh as it's depicted here. While it may be unfortunate that history supports this theory, it's fortunate that District 9 proves science fiction movies can still show signs of intelligent life extending way beyond just impressive visual effects.