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District 9 From Outer Space

August 23rd, 2009

District 9 is an amazing film for several reasons. Its reported $30 million production budget looks like $100 million on the big screen. It seamlessly mixes documentary-style footage with fully-realized digital characters. And it manages to be surprisingly likeable despite being populated almost exclusively by horrible, horrible people.

At first glance, District 9 appears to be an update of Alien Nation, the late ’80s film/TV series about an entire population of displaced extraterrestrials being plopped into the midst of a major metropolis. However, when it came to cultural assimilation, the Tenctonese had it easy compared to the “Prawns” of District 9.

For reasons unexplained, their massive starship parks itself directly above Johannesburg, South Africa. (AsĀ V and Independence Day have taught us, nothing gets humans’ attention quite like hovering a mile-wide saucer over a populated area.) Unable to return to space, the insectoid aliens are moved into a shantytown. Tensions flare between the native South Africans and the new arrivals. Fed up after two decades of not-so-peaceful coexistence, the humans decide to forcibly relocate the creatures to a new tent community far from the city.

An office drone named Wikus (played by Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of the move by the head of the Blackwater-like organization for which he works. Wikus seems amiable enough at first, but soon he’s going door to door, forcing aliens to sign eviction notices at gunpoint. The allusion to apartheid is not at all subtle, but so what? It’s still something that needs to be said.

For the initial half hour or so, District 9 plays out in a faux-documentary style, with a mixture of interviews and surveillance camera footage. Once the main plot kicks in, it becomes a more conventional thriller before reverting back to docu-mode for its final minutes.

Wikus has the bad luck to become infected with a mysterious liquid which begins to mutate him into one of the aliens, Brundlefly-style. That makes him a valuable commodity, as the powerful weapons recovered from the spaceship are keyed to alien DNA and therefore useless to humans. Soon, Wikus is the target not only of his superiors–who have been performing some nasty experiments on the unfortunate residents of District 9–but also the Nigerian gangsters who have taken over the slum.

Copley’s performance as the in-over-his-head office worker managed to bring me back to his side, never mind that a half-hour before I’d seen him cheerfully torching a shack full of alien pods, describing the popping sound made as the unborn creatures burst into flame. It didn’t hurt that he allied himself with “Christopher Johnson,” an alien with his own agenda. A digital character speaking entirely in clicks, Christopher somehow winds up a soulful, thoroughly sympathetic character.

District 9 is not for the faint-of-stomach. There are copious amounts of vomit and other fluids on display. And when the alien weaponry comes into play, soldiers explode in sprays of blood.

First-person shooter videogamers will love the insanely lethal devices, from the lightning rifle that instantly blasts its targets to mist, to the gravity gun (straight out of Half-Life 2) that turns found objects into projectiles. At one point, someone is shot with a pig. No, not by a pig. And I haven’t even mentioned the alien power suit that turns Wikus into the deadliest office manager ever.

Like the best pop sci-fi, District 9 uses the future to comment on the present. It shows how even those who were recently forced to live apart are all too willing to visit the same on those who are not like themselves.

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