Once in awhile, a movie comes along that proves everybody can, indeed, be right. It’s a rare occasion, to be sure, especially in a country where “Titanic” is the reigning all-time box office champion, but it does happen, on occasion, and your humble host is pleased to announce that one of those occasions is right now.
Over the past few months, the buzz around “District 9,” the debut feature from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp and produced by the king of all geekdom himself, Peter Jackson, has been palpable, especially in sci-fi circles. The premise looked intriguing, to say the least : an alien spacecraft of enormous proportions ( a true “mothership” in every sense of the word) is hanging lifeless over Johannesburg, South Africa, for 20 years, and in that time its inhabitants, a mollusk/insectoid-type biped race referred to derisively as “prawns” by Joburg’s citizens have taken up “refuge” in a makeshift slum known as “District 9,” an improvised shantytown that’s a blatantly obvious metaphor for apartheid-era conditions for black South Africans under apartheid. While there are obvious parallels to be drawn here to the film (and later TV series) “Alien Nation,” which featured an ominous “mothership” that, like the freighter in “District 9,” proves to be a type of slave transport for alien “drone workers,” any similarities end there — not just because the locale is changed from Los Angeles to Johannesburg,, and the aliens in “D9” are—well, a lot more alien, but because Blomkamp’s film shows how the human race would probably deal with a sudden infusion of immigrants from space in a much more realistic fashion. Gone are the attempts to gradually assimilate the newly-arrived species into “proper” human society that formed the raison d’etre of “Alien Nation,” and in their place stands cold, brutal, unforgiving segregation, portrayed here in all its less-than-glory.
At the start of our story we’re introduced to Wikus (pronounced VEE-kus) Van Der Werwe(played by South African newcomer Sharlto Copley), a high-level bureaucratic functionary of MNE, the Multi- National United corporation, a type of Blackwater-on-steroids private corporation tasked with administering the squalid ghetto that is District 9, who has been tasked with moving the alien population en masse under a flimsy legal cover to a new, even worse, concentration camp-style setting for the “prawns” further outside of town since Joburg’s citizens have grown tired of their scavenging ways —not that they have much choice but to resort to bottom-feeding, of course, since they aren’t exactly being hired to work anywhere or offered any type of path towards assimilation into human society.
From the moment he enters the alien slum, teeming with rotting meat, every type of vice imaginable (and some you hadn’t imagined), unconscionable squalor, bad- ass Nigerian gangsters, and even-more-bad-ass alien weaponry and makeshift bioengineering, Wikus’ life undergoes a harrowing and literally gut-wrenching transformation that will see him betrayed by members of his own family, made the object of a worldwide smear campaign, turned into a guinea pig for sadistic weapons experimentation and genetic manipulation, and eventually seek sanctuary among the ranks of those who, only hours before, he was in charge of evicting by any means necessary. For a guy with literally no discernible conscience to speak of, whose highest moral value seems to be the pursuit of expediency for the sake of his own career prospects, it’s on hell of a ride, and Copley is absolutely brilliant at conveying the inner transformation his character goes through as his physical reality changes so drastically and quickly. There’s Oscar talk about his performance already, and rest assured, it’s entirely warranted. We have not heard anywhere near the last of Sharlto Copley.
The other great “acting” performance, such as it is, comes from Blomkamp’s CGI aliens themselves, especially Wikus’ makeshift “protector” and uneasy ally, a “prawn” named Christopher Johnson, and his young son. The facial “expressions”, subtle ticks, eye movements, and physical dexterity of Blomkamp’s aliens are a sight to behold, and even if there weren’t subtitles (apparently the humans and aliens can understand each other, though “speaking” the same language is physically impossible), the amazing range displayed by the CGI wizardry on display here would be enough to let audiences know what was happening with the “prawns” much of the time. I’ve been critical of CGI in a general sense in the past, and you know what? I’m probably going to be even more critical of it in the future, because “District 9” sets the bar for any future endeavors so high that I frankly just don’t see how it can be matched. If the Academy doesn’t shower Blomkamp’s effects team with every technical award under the sun, there ought to be an investigation.
The CGI, though—impressive as it is—finds itself outdone by the actual physical setting of the film itself. I’ve never been to Johannesburg, but the arid and oppressive feel to the city that Blomkamp conveys on- screen makes the viewer believe that this is the type of town a giant alien spacecraft would be right at home hovering over. It just seems to fit right in with the heat, the degradation, the feeling of being watched everywhere. This is a story every bot as much about the city it takes place in (and around) as it is about aliens, corporate scheming, the brutality of neglect, and social division. Johannesburg itself is a character in this film every bit as much as Wikus van der Werwe and Christopher Johnson.
If I’m giving the impression here that “District 9” is more or less a flawless science fiction film, that’s because it is. Too often the idea of sci-fi as social allegory turns out to be a road to hell (or at least mediocrity) paved with good intentions, as whatever moral points being made either end up coming across as being heavy-handed or, alternatively, remain frustratingly oblique as the story pays more attention to the type of tech-heavy shoot-’em-ups we’ve seen a thousand times before at the expense truly exploring the often-interesting ideas underpinning the events on screen with anything resembling any definition of depth. “District 9” walks a tightrope act in this regard from start to finish and succeeds brilliantly at realizing its tremendous potential as a comprehensive and intricate study of a displaced alien civilization, an admittedly obvious yet still tremendously powerful social fable, an intense and provocative character study, and a frenetic, no-holds-barred, action-and-effects extravaganza.
People are going to be talking about “District 9” for a long time. It’s already being discussed as a seminal work in the sci-fi genre along with films like “Blade Runner” and “2001:A Space Odyssey.” It’s a demanding, complex, intricate, and thoroughly realized work , a uniquely singular cinematic vision approached with tremendous confidence and not an ounce of hesitation. And it’s a a hell of a thrill ride, to boot. Sure to be among the year’s best and not to be missed under any circumstances.