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District 9 is not exactly subtle with metaphor. As its mockumentary opening moments explain, when a million aliens landed on earth a couple of decades ago, dying from hunger and unable to go back home, they were quickly placed in makeshift government housing, segregated from humans, and soon gained a reputation for stealing name-brand sneakers and cell phones, hustling black-market weapons and hookers, and desecrating their shacks with gang symbols. Any major violence in the area was covered by human journalists as terrorist attacks.
This all takes place in Johannesburg, though, so even with shades of Hurricane Katrina and al Qaeda, racism in general and apartheid in particular are the clear thematic victors in Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi/teachable-moment debut. Under the stewardship of producer Peter Jackson, the South African writer-director has only partly achieved his goal of creating an alien action movie that is as “un-Hollywood” as possible. Blomkamp worked with a relatively small budget (reportedly $30 million) and no stars (any Sharlto Copley fans out there?). And each explosion comes with a side of education.
But just because District 9 isn’t stupid doesn’t mean it’s brilliant—or off-the-Boulevard original. Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell do infuse it with a WTF? weirdness, however, which is enough to keep a good chunk of the film engrossing.
A shaky cam introduces us to Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley), a geeky pawn at MNU, a technology-research company with an alien-affairs department. When human/nonhuman tensions escalate, the government decides to move District 9 residents, pejoratively referred to as “prawns,” into an even worse shantytown. Wikus is appointed to lead the corporation’s eviction unit by his father-in-law/boss, a greedy, secretive grump who apparently doesn’t think much of the prawns or his daughter’s taste in men.
The evictions don’t go smoothly. Wikus and his team go door-to-door serving the D9 occupants with papers, receiving responses including threats of violence and more than one “Fuck off!” Humans and non- both speak their native languages and easily understand the other’s; for the rest of us, alien dialogue is subtitled. The exchanges are tense and fascinating, with Blomkamp and his effects crew presenting some impressive work: There are no quick, confusing edits to obscure fights or what the aliens look like. You see the prawns as clearly as the Earthlings, most of them tall, antennaed, scaly, and, indeed, shrimp-like. Most remarkable, though, is how their behavior and mannerisms evoke our own. You understand their annoyance when they’re unexpectedly told to leave their homes, and their anger when their shacks are searched. One prawn who becomes a prominent character has a son, and damned if the little one’s curiosity and concern for his papa don’t make him seem like a very real, if very scabrous, human boy.
But that raises a conundrum for the audience: Whom are we supposed to root for here? The aliens are violent toward man, yet man doesn’t treat them very well either—turns out humans are using the aliens to steal their weapons technology. And when Wikus accidentally sprays himself with an unidentified fluid while searching a D9 house, the good guy/bad guy tug gets even stickier, as the stuff turns him into a man-monster hybrid. Wikus discovers there’s a fix, but it requires cooperating and perhaps even aiding the prawns—what to do?
The story is quite interesting, but this conflict is presented before the film’s halfway mark, after which District 9 becomes a rather one-note parade of très Hollywood chases, gunfire, and explosions. Anyone previously pained by this summer’s Michael Bay blockbuster will appreciate a clearer, smarter use of Transformers-like beings, but just like Bay’s Hasbro-influenced mess, District 9’s third-act noise is somewhat of a snooze. (The constantly moving camera and frequent use of news crawls is another headache.) And no amount of English/alien conversations, most of them reportedly improvised, can keep you from giggling at lines such as “All I want is to eat that arm and become like you.” Ultimately, the film’s weirdness too often jolts you back to reality—perhaps not a Tinseltown flaw, but a flaw nonetheless.