In an ideal world, every Hollywood studio suit would be forced to sit through District 9 as part of a curriculum titled “How to Make a Summer Movie That Delivers.” Here is a smart, hugely entertaining genre picture, made by Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based Wingnut Films for $30 million, that exposes its costlier U.S. cousins (such as the $175 million G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) as the ungainly, colossal wastes of money they really are.
Here is a movie stuffed with computer-generated effects in which the CGI creatures — 6-foot-tall walking prawns that speak in guttural clicks and growls — look so utterly real and so seamlessly integrated, you forget they don’t actually exist.
Here is a rip-roaring, relentless science-fiction adventure that neither insults your intelligence nor requires you to come up with excuses for liking it. (People who say things such as “I know it was stupid, but I was in the mood for a popcorn movie” seem to think there’s no such thing as a good popcorn movie).
And here is a glossy blockbuster that knows the difference between thrilling viewers and pummeling them into submission (yes, Michael Bay, we mean you). District 9, the debut of director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp, uses handheld cameras, faux-documentary footage and CNN-style news reports to tell what happens when the residents of Johannesburg grow tired of sharing their city with the 1.8 million passengers of a gigantic spaceship that stalled over their skies 20 years before, and vote to relocate the stranded aliens to a remote shantytown.
The vaguely fascist corporation handling the relocation, Multi National United (MNU), assigns Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a chipper, eager pencil-pusher, to oversee the operation. You may not initially like the obsequious Wikus, played with indefatigable energy by Copley. But I guarantee you’ll be rooting for him by film’s end.
District 9 takes a little while to get cooking while Blomkamp fills in the finer details of his scenario. The aliens have an uncontrollable fondness for cat food — the stuff is like crack cocaine to them. Humans have given the visitors ordinary names in order to tell them apart (a prawn named Christopher Johnson figures prominently in the story). The creepy E.T.s brought powerful weapons with them, which MNU operatives have seized but cannot use, because the guns only fire when wielded by someone with the aliens’ DNA.
Those are all the details you’ll get here, except that to say the plot merely thickens as the movie progresses does not do the ingenious story justice.
Blomkamp was born and raised in South Africa under the shadow of apartheid, but he doesn’t push the obvious metaphors inherent in District 9’s premise. They’re just there for those who want them. This is a wildly unpredictable and original movie that melds stock sci-fi elements into something fresh and exciting and new.
The movie District 9 most strongly recalls, at least in tone and feeling, is James Cameron’s The Terminator, another low-budget, sci-fi action picture that showcased the resourceful talents of its young and relatively unknown director. At 29, with just one movie to his credit, Blomkamp is already showing the big boys how it’s done. Attention all geeks (and geeks at heart): Get ready for two hours of serious awesome.
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Mandla Gaduka, Kenneth Nkosi.
Director: Neill Blomkamp.
Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell.
Producers: Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham.
A Tri-Star Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, heavy violence, copious gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.