District 9 has all of the ingredients of a classic summer movie recipe, including spectacular special effects, rousing action, and even few big laughs, but chefs, Neill Blomkamp (director) and Peter Jackson (producer), want to do more than just tickle your taste buds. They're serving up this bad boy with a generous portion of wince-inducing violence, a creamy layer of compelling drama, and finishing it off with a heaping helping of unrefined pathos. It’s an innovative and exciting new dish in a summer in which everyone else seems to be serving the same old stale popcorn, and, once you fully digest it, you’re certain to want seconds.
The film opens with a series of interviews and newsreel snippets documenting the arrival of an enormous and seemingly crippled alien vessel in Johannesburg, South Africa. The occupants of the ship - a humanoid species nicknamed “prawns” due to their vague resemblance to the crustaceans – are stranded, here, and, after an ill-fated attempt at living amongst the other citizens of Johannesburg, find themselves relocated to a tent city just outside of city limits dubbed District 9. The prawns are monitored by MNU, a multi-national policing agency who run regular sweeps of the shanty town using strong-arm tactics to round up weapons (both alien and the human variety supplied by the Nigerian gangs who live amongst them), control the population (by burning the prawn’s “hatcheries”), and generally make the alien visitors existence here on Earth a thoroughly miserable one.
Newly promoted MNU agent, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, in a star-making performance), has been assigned the task of relocating the prawns to (supposedly) more humane digs in District 10 – a new encampment located far enough away to appease the angry denizens of Johannesburg, who have grown weary of sharing their city with the visitors. During his first sweep, Wikus is exposed to a strange chemical compound that triggers a metamorphosis within him, and, before you can say Seth Brundle, Wilkus’ DNA has become fused with that of the prawns, instantly making him a valuable commodity to both the scientists at MNU and the Nigerian gangs, each of whom seek to harness the power Wikus’ rapidly changing biology represents. His only hope for a cure rests in the hands of “Christopher”, an alien who possesses the means to help his brethren return to the stars, but needs Wikus’ help to make it happen.
Equal parts Independence Day and The Blair Witch Project (with a touch of icky Cronenbergian body horror and frantic Bourne-style visuals thrown in for good measure), Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is the very definition of great science fiction. It’s a film that manages to not only entertain on every level, but also carries a sobering, oftentimes emotionally devastating sociopolitical message. For speculative fiction to be truly effective, it needs to be grounded in reality, and District 9 achieves this by holding up a mirror to how we, as a species, treat each other, whether it be for personal, financial, or political gain. The filthy, subhuman conditions of District 9 could easily represent any number of real world examples (from refugee camps in Africa to the prison at Guantanamo Bay), while the atrocities committed against the visitors are, sadly, no less believable.
Alternating between a documentary approach, and a more traditional style narrative, Blomkamp deftly weaves these two storytelling devices together, offering both a “world’s eye” view of the action (replete with the predictable amount of media sensationalism and government propaganda) as well as the events as seen from Wikus’ perspective. It’s a unique hybrid of narrative styles, made all the more impressive by how seamlessly it’s implemented, and that, combined with the film’s largely unknown cast, lends District 9 a sense of authenticity rarely seen in the genre.
District 9 arrives riding a mammoth wave of Comic-Con generated hype, but, for the first time in a very long time, this is a film that more than lives up to it. It’s the antithesis of what one expects from a summertime blockbuster; a film that’s as moving and intelligent as it is exciting and eye-popping, and is easily the best I’ve seen this year.