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Resident Aliens vs. Predators

Finally--a sci-fi actioner that delivers the goods

Sharlto Copley straps it on.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/12/2009

By the time a shantytown Nigerian crime lord wants to cut off--and eat--a corporate wonk's arm because said wonk can operate high-tech and monstrously destructive alien weapons and a mercenary team descends on this shantytown in a missile-armed helicopter as a bug-like alien fears he may never see his son again toward the end of District 9, South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp has more than restored your faith in the idea that a special effects-driven sci-fi action flick can have a brain and a heart, too. Blomkamp and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell tremendously translate Blomkamp's 2005 short, "Alive in Joburg," into a feature packed with a dense backstory, a provocatively believable alternative present, and wonderfully developed alien culture. That the movie's obvious political subtext doesn't amount to much is only mildly disappointing.

District 9 opens in an understated whir of a documentary movie. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, who carries the entire picture) is a field operative for Multi-National United (MNU), a private company that has overseen the nearly 2 million aliens who settled in a Johannesburg refugee camp 20 years ago when their spaceship came to a halt right above the South African city's downtown district. Nobody knew why they came, why their ship stopped, or what they're doing here, but when a team entered the craft, it found the aliens--who walk erect on hind legs and have arms and another pair of limbs protruding from their narrow waists, with oblong heads and insect-like mouths--badly undernourished and in distress. They were relocated to the refugee camp, a temporary settlement that quickly became their resident shantytown, dubbed District 9. The aliens live there--District 9 is as poverty-stricken and trash-strewn as any African shantytown--and, as the many interviewed talking heads explain, like any settlement camp crime thrives within its borders. Nigerians have taken over its criminal underworld, stockpiling alien weaponry and trafficking in interspecies prostitution.

District 9 has become so unsightly and unseemly that the citizens of Johannesburg, both white and black, want the aliens to go home or at least want them relocated. Humans despise these creatures. They deride the filth in which they live. Their human stomachs turn at the fact that the aliens cherish consuming cat food (cans of wet cat food are used to distract the aliens when need be). Humans have even given the aliens derogatory a name--"prawns." Bottom feeders.

Given this public outcry, a documentary team is following Wikus and MNU on the day District 9 opens, the first day in a mass-relocation project to move all the aliens to a new camp 20 kilometers outside Johannesburg. In accordance with the law, Wikus and MNU must notify the aliens of their eviction from District 9 and get their mark on a contract--swatting the paper away counts as such--before physical eviction begins. MNU hires a mercenary team to ensure MNU agents' safety and subdue--meaning: kill--any unruly aliens.

Blomkamp winningly outlines all of the above inside the movie's opening 20 minutes, a mix of interviews, mock news programs, and documentary footage of Wikus and MNU in action. Of course, this is a sci-fi action flick, and casual remarks from people about "that day," or why people might now consider Wikus a traitor to his own kind, drop hints as to the convoluted, action-packed plot that follows. Over District 9's 112 minutes, Blomkamp seamlessly incorporates ideas of global weapons accumulation, questionable medical-science research, governmental cover-ups, media manipulation, and outright paranoia into his action flick. And, yes, when some alien-brewed black liquid substance accidentally spews over an MNU operative, you start to see exactly where District 9 is headed. For once, though, a sci-fi flick entertainingly goes there with gusto, confidence, and style.

The movie's District 9 is inspired by Cape Town's District 6 during the apartheid regime, and it's difficult not to go looking for right-now political content in this make-believe story. Hell, it's near impossible to see any images of refugee camps, which ethnic rivalries have made common sights along geopolitical borders throughout Africa, without looking for some kind of commentary in their fictional kin. If District 9 has anything to say about such things, outside of some basic humanism that Blomkamp cannily focuses on the aliens, it's keeping those ideas close to its chest. Perhaps that's wise, as too much thinking might've gotten in the way of the plot. As is, District 9 is a well-crafted slab of alien-action flick: nothing more, nothing less.

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