The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Reviews - By John Bei­fuss

A BLOODY, GAL­VA­NIZ­ING THRILLER that de­liv­ers an un­for­tu­nate mixed mes­sage through the “alien apartheid” metaphor of its clever premise, “District 9” ar­rives in the­aters to­day on a wave of hype about its lack of hype.

“Why ‘District 9’ Will Blow Your Mind — All About the Must-See Movie of the Sum­mer,” is the blurb on the cover of the new is­sue of En­ter­tain­ment Weekly, which head­lines the in­side story with this claim: “Haven’t heard of ‘District 9’? By next week, it may be all you talk about.” (Ap­par­ently, the ed­i­tors of En­ter­tain­ment Weekly don’t think their read­ers are par­tic­u­larly in­ven­tive con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists.)

Much buzzed and Twit­tered about since its fan­boy-stok­ing preview in July at San Diego’s Comic-Con In­ter­na­tional (the world’s largest gath­er­ing of fan­tasy, sci­ence-fic­tion and comic-book fans), “District 9” de­serves the ad­vance hosan­nas, to a point.

Shot in South Africa on a rel­a­tively mod­est bud­get of about $30 mil­lion, the film stars a novice ac­tor, Sharlto Co­p­ley (who takes about as much abuse as any­one on­screen since Marilyn Burns in the orig­i­nal “The Texas Chain SawMas­sacre”), and was di­rected by fea­ture new­comer Neill Blomkamp, whose TV com­mer­cials im­pressed the movie’s pro­ducer (and the only “name” as­so­ci­ated with the film), Peter Jack­son, di­rec­tor of the “Lord of the Rings” tril­ogy.

A mor­dant mash-up of “The Of­fice” and “Alien Na­tion” (a 1988 film also about hu­man-alien “racism”), the movie be­gins as a faux doc­u­men­tary, con­structed from talk­ing-heads in­ter­views and news and sur­veil­lance-cam­era footage. But Blomkamp doesn’t try to sus­tain this il­lu­sion, fre­quently cut­ting to scenes that aren’t be­ing filmed by any­one within the movie; this sug­gests the “Clover­field” vibe was as much a cost-cut­ting de­vice as a stylis­tic and nar­ra­tive choice.

Writ­ten by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, the film es­tab­lishes that a huge alien space­ship has been hov­er­ing above Jo­han­nes­burg for the past 20-plus years. The aliens dis­cov­ered in­side the ap­par­ently dis­abled craft were not in­vaders but, es­sen­tially, “boat peo­ple”: Mal­nour­ished, des­per­ate and mys­te­ri­ously aban­doned. Dubbed “prawns” be­cause of their re­sem­blance to large, bipedal shrimp, th­ese ex­tremely un-hu­man­like crea­tures with a gut­tural, click­ing lan­guage and a taste for meat and cat food quickly were seg­re­gated, apartheid-style, into shan­ty­town projects that in­evitably de­volved into crime-rid­den slums. Out­side their ghet­tos, the “prawns” are met with sus­pi­cion and hos­til­ity. (“No Non-Hu­man Loi­ter­ing” is a typ­i­cal street sign.)

The alien dis­tricts are op­er­ated by a pri­vate con­trac­tor, Multi-Na­tional United, which is more in­ter­ested in the aliens’ ad­vanced weaponry than in their wel­fare. Ex­ploit­ing anti-alien pub­lic opin­ion, MNU de­cides to trans­fer the “prawns” into a Guan­tanamo-like con­tain­ment fa­cil­ity. An un­com­pre­hend­ing MNU stooge of a field op­er­a­tive, Wikus van der Merwe (Co­p­ley, who is su­perb), is put in charge of the re­lo­ca­tion ef­fort.

Af­ter Wikus is con­tam­i­nated by a trans­form­ing alien liq­uid (he grows a claw, like in the 1958 “The Fly,” and loses his teeth, like in the 1986 “The Fly”), the film be­comes less a so­cial satire and more an action-packed con­spir­acy/chase thriller — even a con­ven­tion­ally “un­con­ven­tional” buddy pic­ture, as Wikus be­friends a sci­en­tist prawn known as “Christo­pher John­son” (this is what might be called the alien’s “slave name”). The ro­botic cli­max is “Trans­form­ers” done right.

Tech­ni­cally, “District 9” is ut­terly con­vinc­ing, even amaz­ing, thanks to the (as usual) bet­ter-than-Hol­ly­wood crea­ture ef­fects of Jack­son’s New Zealand-based We­taWork­shop, the gritty de­tail of the pro­duc­tion de­sign and the verve and flair of Blomkamp’s di­rec­tion. The action se­quences — in­clud­ing po­lice-style vi­o­lent shoot-outs be­tween MNU mer­ce­nar­ies and Nige­rian gang­sters — make those in the sum­mer’s big-bud­get block­busters look as unreal and ridicu­lous as they are.

Still, the movie’s sup­posed mes­sage of tol­er­ance is con­fused, demon­strat­ing that spe­cific metaphor in fan­tasy is harder to pull off than the open-ended al­le­gory of, say, “In­va­sion of the Body Snatch­ers.” One can imag­ine the Aryan Na­tion en­dors­ing the idea that a sin­gle drop of alien blood can turn a hu­man be­ing into a “mon­ster,” and that “race mix­ing” would thus mean the end of hu­man­ity, even if the film demon­strates that Wikus’ con­tam­i­na­tion is the key to his re­demp­tion.

It’s also trou­bling that all the black African char­ac­ters in “District 9” are thugs, gang­sters and even can­ni­bals, with none of the dig­nity of the “prawns.” A young white sub­ur­ban­ite might emerge from a screen­ing think­ing that aliens are cool, but, y’know, black folks are re­ally scary.

Sony Pic­tures

Lit­tle-known ac­tor Sharlto Co­p­ley (cen­ter) is the cen­tral char­ac­ter in “District 9,” a much-hyped alien-en­counter film with so­cial over­tones.

Sony Pic­tures

An alien be­comes a vir­tual po­lit­i­cal cap­tive a la Guan­tanamo in “District 9.”

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