Somewhere near the middle of Neill Blomkamps District 9, corporate bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) and his alien friend Christopher Johnson blast their way into the headquarters of an evil multinational corporation known as MNU in search of the only trace of fuel left on the planet that can get Johnson home. The pair turns wave after wave of MNU security goons to jelly using an assortment of alien weapons before locating their prize and making an explosive getaway with an army of MNUs finest in land-and-air pursuit. District 9 isnt a video game adaptation, but watching the movie I kept thinking that it might as well be.
District 9 is the first film by Neill Blomkamp. The director was originally hired by Lord of the Rings wizard Peter Jackson to helm the big-screen adaptation of Bungie Studios Halo, a mega-grossing X-Box title that seems ripe for summer blockbuster status. The financing for the production soon fell apart (something about investors balking at an inexperienced director and a $150 million-plus price tag), and Halo was history. Jackson still wanted to give Blomkamp his big break, however, and thought back to his Alive in Joburg, the short film that caught Jacksons eye in the first place. Maybe they could expand that into a feature?
Inspired by Blomkamps time in post-apartheid South Africa, Joburg is a clever take on the standard aliens-among-us story. In Blomkamps vision, the ETs are interstellar refugees stranded on Earth and forced by their terrestrial hosts to live separate from humans in ghetto-like conditions. (One of Joburgs aliens even begs for electricity and running water.) The short uses a hodgepodge of film styles, leaning most heavily on pseudo-TV news footage and talking-head interview segments. District 9 repurposes all of these elements, expanding and fleshing them out in the process.
The basic plot of District 9 goes something like this: Twenty-eight years ago, an alien ship appeared in the skies above Johannesburg. Mankind, seeking high-tech goodies, cut its way into the saucer only to find hundreds of thousands of malnourished, diseased aliens. The creatures, degradingly called prawns because of their resemblance to walking shrimp, were relocated to a slum in the city (the titular District 9), where they spend their days aimlessly rooting through garbage and getting high on cat food. Meanwhile, MNU, the corporation hired to administer to the prawns, is secretly dissecting the alien visitors and attempting to figure out their advanced weaponry.
Wikus Van de Merwe, normally an MNU desk jockey, heads into District 9 with a camera crew in tow, going door-to-door in search of contraband. While poking around one shanty hut, Van de Merwe accidentally sprays himself in the face with some kind of alien goop. Within hours, the man responsible for administering the forced relocation of 1.5 million aliens is himself turning into a prawn.
There is a lot more to the plot, but the story of District 9 is the films weakest element. I walked out pondering why the prawns were here in the first place and the origin of Van de Merwes disease. (Alien gasoline turns humans into prawns? Really?) And dont get me started about the unsatisfying conclusion. That being said, to reject District 9 because of lapses of plot is to miss the bigger picture.
This Blomkamp chap is a hell of a visual stylist. District 9 reportedly cost $30 million to make, but youd think the budget was three times that. The prawns are wonderfully expressive creatures, convincing enough to inspire real attachment in the audience, and the alien technology (including spaceships, robots and guns that shoot energy waves and lightning bolts) is fully realized and visually impressive. Its so well done that Ill bet much of this stuff was created for Halo and recycled here.
So, yes, the eye candy is impressive, but thats not enough. Two other factors push District 9 into the recommended category: Sharlto Copleys performance as Van de Merwe and the films undercurrent of social commentary. So much of the films message is wrapped up in Van de Merwes transformation from human to prawn that its tough to imagine the film succeeding without Copley.
In the end, District 9 is more of a collection of great ideas than a fully formed movie, but I was OK with that. Blomkamp has made an assured directorial debut that cries out for a sequel. Im hoping the director is already behind the lens toiling on District 10.