20 years ago, much to the surprise of the superpower United States, aliens landed over Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens, however, weren't exactly what we all expected.
The aliens didn't attack us.
Instead, these aliens weren't much more than refugees in a world they couldn't begin to understand. They looked different from us and, undeniably, spoke a different language. These aliens had different customs and, well, alien cultural norms.
But, as different as they were, they weren't really that different than any other foreigner suddenly transplanted into a strange, new land.
However, as we've learned time and again with nearly any country that has dealt with refugees, things didn't go as planned and within a few years these aliens, who originally numbered 1 million and would grow to 1.8 million, would become increasingly hated by those around them and the 20-year long co-existence in an area known as District 9 would have to come to an end.
This is where director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" begins, a film based upon his own short story and a film that is as much an indictment of contemporary humanity as it is a sci-fi flick set squarely among the aliens among us. The human beings, you see, are initially intrigued by the aliens and welcome them with "humanitarian" aid and assistance while allowing them to live among them in the still segregated District 9. Yet, it is not long before this refugee camp begins to resemble a concentration camp and the aliens begin not so much living as existing in squalor and overwhelming poverty as the "prawns" or bottom-feeders of South African society.
It is also not long before the humans decide that peaceful co-existence is not an option and the plan is hatched to relocate the aliens in a new camp, District 10, just over 200 KM outside Johannesburg in an operation to be led by an organizational Blackwater-type organization called Multi-National United and directed by the recently promoted Wilkus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who just so happens to also be married to the chief's daughter and is clearly in over his head in handling this monumental task.
Shot with tremendous realism in a style that resembles equal parts "Tsotsi" and "Mad Max," "District 9" may very well be the kind of film Peter Jackson himself has been unable to create over the years, perhaps explaining why the Oscar-winning director signed on as the film's producer. "District 9" is an unsettling, deeply moving and remarkably thoughtful film- all qualities that are largely devoid from Jackson's more techno-driven and, perhaps, more market-friendly films though I'll be utterly astounded if "District 9" doesn't become one of Summer 2009's bigger hits with its marvelous blend of technology, humanity, intelligence and dark wit.
As "District 9" plays out, alliances will change and so will character's motivations. This is true, as well, I'd suspect for audiences as we initially land in District 9 as objective third-party observers and, yet, as the story unfolds it is impossible to not be drawn into the disheartening plight of the aliens as they are subjected to the various cruelties of a frightened and greedy human race. Wilkus will realize this very fact himself, under duress, and the way that Blomkamp allows all of this to unfold is intelligent, tragic and strangely familiar as I myself sat with images of Apartheid, concentration camps and Darfur flashing before my eyes.
Assigned with carrying much of the film, Sharlto Copley, whose primary cinematic history is behind the camera, makes for a frighteningly normal and yet completely mesmerizing Wilkus. Copley's Wilkus goes from an almost bookish nerd living a privileged life to a sort of tragic figure who comes to realize he's merely a pawn in the effort to control the prawns and to gain access to their technology, knowledge and power. While Copley's acting occasionally flags a touch, he offers Wilkus a refreshing normalcy that adds a remarkable depth and naturalness to the character as he reacts to the world as it changes around him.
The majority of the aliens are acted out by Jason Cope with tremendous technological assistance, though when one considers the vast numbers and differences in personality between the aliens the power of Cope's performance is far more evident.
In fact, it is the development of the aliens, both through Cope's performance and the film's technological wizardry, that is most remarkable. With almost nil recognizable facial expression and zero in the way of perceivable language, these aliens are beautifully and movingly brought to life in simply magnificent ways. Of particular note, a father/son alien duo is arguably the film's most touching portrait as the father is repeatedly called into remarkable strength in order to reunite with his son. Rather than through any particular connection with the humans, it was through the surprisingly real connections of this father and son that tears began to well up in my eyes and I found myself unable to look away from the screen.
Filmed on a modest $30 million budget, at least modest by sci-fi and Peter Jackson standards, "District 9" far outshines the recent "G.I. Joe" flick, a laughably bad creation that cost nearly six times as much to make. The alien creations balance realism and awesomeness, the refugee camp is poignantly realized and resembles a true South African shantytown and Clinton Shorter's original score remarkably inter-mixes a sci-fi feeling with a traditional South African operatic sensibility. Trent Opaloch's camera work is stellar, nicely capturing even the various fight scenes in ways that seemed to completely confound this summer's earlier blockbuster, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."
Along with the occasional lapses in acting, it is possible to argue that "District 9" borrows a bit freely from other science fiction films though one gets the distinct feeling this was more about the needs of the story than any particular lack of originality. In fact, it is a rather brilliant stroke by co-writers Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell to place the film in South Africa, a locale that both evokes the dire nature of the situation while bringing to the forefront the powerful message of the story without Blomkamp and Tatchell needing to say a word in the film.
"District 9" FEELS oppressed and this oppression permeates virtually every single minute of the film's 112-minute runtime.
With its inventiveness undeniable, there are going to be those who tout "District 9" as a sci-fi classic and one of the years top films. Indeed, "District 9" is one of the best sci-fi films in years and certainly will find its way onto many Top 10 lists for the year. Yet, the film's inventiveness cannot disguise the occasional acting slips, the frequent borrowing from other films, the film's disappointing final third during which much of its intelligence and humanity give way to standard shoot 'em up action scenes and a rather blatant ending that seems to cry out for a sequel, not necessarily out of the question given the film's modest budget and likely box-office success.
While "District 9" may fall shy of "classic" status, it is a remarkable feature film debut from Blomkamp and one of the most refreshingly entertaining and intelligent sci-fi films to hit the big screen in years without resorting to Michael Bay style action sequences and dumbed down technology. "District 9" is a sci-fi film for true sci-fi geeks and those who enjoy poring over every cell of a film looking for images and messages, hidden meanings and double entendres of the technological kind. It's a film that will demand conversation, debate and repeated viewing.
The best sci-fi films find a way to blend science and spirituality, technology and humanity in ways that are both moving and intellectually stimulating. Minor flaws aside, "District 9" does these things and so much more- the final result is a film that will haunt your heart and your mind long after you've left the theatre.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic