Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: "District 9"

I literally just got home from seeing District 9, the feature debut of South African filmmaker Niell Blomkamp and all I can say is "Wow!"

For those not familiar, District 9 is the story of a group of refugee aliens whose disabled ship comes to rest over Johannesburg in 1981. The aliens are soon transported to a quarantined area which quickly devolves into a slum. The locals hate them (they refer to them derogatorily as "Prawns" because of their resemblance to shellfish) and the idled aliens (most of whom are not very bright) resort to anarchistic behavior in an attempt to entertain themselves. District 9 also houses a rather unpleasant group of Nigerian thugs who swindle the Prawns out of money and weapons for over-priced cat food, and who resort to killing and eating the aliens in an attempt to gain their abilities to operate the aliens' weapons. When the South African government decides to relocate them to an internment camp outside the city, they contract weapons manufacturer NMU to do the dirty work for them. NMU, meanwhile, has been trying to figure out how to make the aliens' weapons work, but are unable to do so because the weapons require Prawn DNA in order to function. NMU appoints schlubby executive (and the boss' son-in-law)Wikus Van De Merwe to head up the evictions.

When Wikus (Africaan actor Sharlto Copley in a stellar performance) is exposed to the fluid that fuels the Prawn technology, it changes his DNA and makes him the first human able to control the weapons and a very valuable (and dangerous) man. Hunted by both NMU and the Nigerian toughs, Wikus turns to a Prawn named Christopher Johnson for help (much like at Ellis Island, the aliens were given human names upon their internment). Johnson and his son have been working on a way to restore power to the ship, which requires the fluid that has changed Wikus, which is now in the hands of NMU.

Shot with mostly hand-held cameras in a faux documentary style, District 9 is basically a film about how awful human beings can be to not only each other, but other forms of life. Blomkamp, who grew up during South Africa's apartheid era, has made a gritty and at times uncomfortable to watch film, which borrows heavily from other Sci-Fi classics (The Fly; Alien Nation; Aliens) to makes its many points. Produced by Peter Jackson, the film is an expanded remake of Blomkamp's six-minute short Alive in Joburg. It's loaded with some terrific CGI effects (the aliens themselves are most impressive, with lots of independently functioning extremities and surprisingly expressive eyes) and plenty of explosions and gore. The acting is top-notch and the characters, while familiar, are believable and well-developed. Not for the easily upset or queasy-stomached, District 9 is as smart and entertaining as it is grim and misanthropic. I saw it with four friends - two of whom hated it because it was so grim and two of whom loved it as much as I did. Blomkamp is most definitely a director from whom we can expect great things. **** (Four Stars). District 9 is rated R for language, violence and gore. Watch the trailer, below:

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