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Good old Monster Madness makes a happy comeback to movie screens in the odd Sci-Fi amalgam District 9, which starts out looking like a rip-off of ten earlier fantastic films but soon develops a personality of its own. Director Neill Blomkamp deftly juggles the changing points of view between newsflash blips and the up-close trauma of a basically unlikeable neo-Quatermass nerd hero.
Peter Jackson apparently nudged this eccentric Sci-Fi tale to the big screen as a way of funneling work to his New Zealand effects establishment. District 9 isn't the most ambitious CGI film ever made but it certainly has wall-to-wall creature effects -- hulking insectoid-crustacean alien castaways.
As in 1988's Alien Nation, a colossal spaceship hovers over an earth city (in this case Johannesburg) and proves to be holding a huge population of starving, sick alien creatures. These are rescued and, after causing trouble, quarantined in a sealed ghetto. The parallel to black African "problems" is made clear. Given the derogatory name "prawns", the aliens are shunned and targeted for discrimination by white and black Africans alike. As they behave like belligerent hooligans it is assumed that they aren't the masters of the giant ship, which remains floating above the city but is otherwise inert.
Twenty years later, the Multi-National United (MNU) Company is relocating several millions of ghettoized prawns to a concentration camp away from the city. Bureaucratic functionary Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is named by his boss (and father-in-law) to head the eviction team, which shows a humane face to the TV cameras while brutalizing the shantytown aliens. MNU's private security forces ignore Wikus'es instructions and use any pretext to kill prawns. Then Wikus enters the shack of Christopher Johnson, an uncommonly intelligent alien: nobody seems to realize that the creatures come in more than one caste, like ants. Johnson and his son have been using refined biotechnology to power a homemade flying craft to take them back to the giant Mothership.
Unfortunately for Wikus, a glob of greenish bio-agent splatters in his face, and he begins a horrible physical transformation. Within a few hours his left hand has changed into a tentacled prawn claw. As it turns out, MNU is very much like the diversified corporations in Aliens and RoboCop. With his alien claw, Wikus can operate alien machinery -- and weapons -- that respond only to contact with alien DNA. Seeing that this bio-meld between human and prawn is a research boon for MNU, Wikus'es own father-in-law authorizes his immediate vivisection. Traumatized and radicalized, Wickus has little choice but to fight back.
District 9 is an agreeable tossed salad of mostly good ideas that (for once) support a storyline that includes plenty of scenes of security soldiers battling aliens with ray guns. The overall social setup is deceptive. On the obvious level the prawns approximate blacks under apartheid. They're excluded from full human rights, feared and loathed. The movie Alien Nation exploits this particular theme to rather monotonous effect. But the South African setting of District 9 shows the resentful black population discriminating against the prawns just as callously as do the whites. What seems a liberal setup is really a conservative statement: why grant full rights to an oppressed minority, when we know full well that they'll abuse them? You know, the old "they'd do the same to us, only worse" argument.
Reinforcing this notion is the brutal Nigerian gang allowed to terrorize and exploit the prawn population within the ghetto. Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell make the Nigerians nearly subhuman. The gangsters force black women into cross-species prostitution with the aliens. They also eat prawns in the superstitious belief that they'll derive alien power that way. Like MNU, the Nigerian ganglord wants the ability to fire those advanced prawn ray guns.
The "Evil Corporation" subplot is acceptable because it's handled so vigorously. The MNU exec clearly thinks his son-in-law is a loser and is probably hoping he'll disgrace himself. He then frames Wikus as a human-on-alien sex offender to create a smokescreen to hide the poor guy's disappearance. As in the RoboCop films, MNU conducts atrocious illegal experiments and commits untold murders to concentrate on its core business, weapons systems. The TV news reports only the MNU side of things, allowing the company to make the fugitive Wikus, its helpless victim, into a despised villain that even his own wife won't help.
The alien prawns are fascinating monsters that could only be done in CGI. They have dozens of moving mouth pieces, antennae and "helper" arms in their stomachs. The worker prawns are boorish and violent (so much so that we wonder why they haven't been exterminated as a menace) but nobody seems to have investigated the species further. The highly intelligent Christopher Johnson is fluent with incredible technology, and his cricket-like son is a skilled operator-repairman as well. The prawns are integrated so well into the flow of the movie that we soon stop looking for visual flaws and take them for granted.
District 9's interesting leading character keeps it from becoming an empty effects showcase, or a hectoring civics lesson (the kind with monsters and ray guns). Sharto Copely's lively improvisations make Wikus Van Der Merwe a sentimental but flawed jerk, the kind of guy who sends valentines to his wife but then does the dirty work of a faceless corporation, oppressing the prawns with deceitful eviction notices. Wikus is patronized by his superiors and despised by the military goons (more goonish than is usual, here) who indulge his mealy-mouthed patter only so long before telling him to shut the f___ up. It's a much more believable civilian-soldier relationship than the one depicted in Howard Hawks' classic The Thing from Another World.
Like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly or Robert Culp in The Outer Limits episode The Architects of Fear, Wikus undergoes a horrible transformation. In a direct reference to poor spaceman Victor Carroon of The Quatermass Xperiment, Wikus'es arm is the first part to take on alien characteristics -- in this case, it sprouts a literal prawn claw. Poor Wikus is put into the position of James Whitmore in the film Black Like Me: "What, Me Prawn?" To the extent that District 9 is a tangential plea for civil rights, it's much better than pictures like Cry Freedom that approach black history solely through the experiences of sympathetic white people. Thoughtless clod Wikus Van Der Merwe would never bother himself with the problems of an underclass. Before his bio-accident he's as amused as anybody by the prawns' miserable situation. Not until the final battle does he become sincere in his comradeship with Christopher Johnson.
Wikus arouses both our sympathy and our amusement. We can't help but anticipate his crazy transformation with a certain glee. In Sci-Fi terms, he's is not that much different from the doofus ant-man Mant! in Joe Dante's sublime Matinee: "Insecticide? Where?". Existentially speaking, Wikus is the slapstick fall guy in a Kafka-esque bio-horror comedy. "I Never Metamorphosis I Didn't Like".
Far too many so-called Sci-Fi thrillers are excuses for infantile action scenes and ray gun battles. District 9's big finish involves a three-way shootout between Wikus with his ray gun- capable left arm, the MNU security forces and the Nigerian gangsters. It makes use of a man-amplifier robot suit, one of the film's few ho-hum elements. Redeeming all the noise and destruction is our interest in the goofy Wikus and his human-prawn identity crisis. Peter Jackson and company are careful to make sure that their show will appeal to the full spectrum of Sci-Fi fans. Those who want to see people blown into hamburger by an array of alien small-arms blasters, won't be left behind.
District 9 moves quickly, concocts an engaging set of conflicts and skirts the edge of what's tolerable in the gross-out stakes. At the center of all the effects and CGI pyrotechnics is a good actor doing a marvelous job holding it all together; I hope we see more of this Sharto Copely. Although there's no obvious preparation here for a sequel, it shouldn't be too much effort for this popular thriller to become a hot franchise.
Sony's Blu-ray of District 9 is one of the best-selling discs of the Christmas season. Filmed with the Red One digital camera system, it doesn't go in for heavy stylization, preferring to look like someone just happened to be filming scenes of humans interacting with alien monsters. The movie shows the Red Camera's ability to "see" as the human eye sees in normal available light situations.
A clever ad campaign had a lot to do with the film's theatrical success last summer. The mysterious discriminatory anti-prawn messages that showed up on bus benches were impossible to ignore. The same smarts carry over to the elaborate Blu-ray extras, which I assume were overseen by Peter Jackson. They're cleverly integrated into the overarching anti-prawn theme. As soon as one loads the disc, a choice pops up between human and prawn signage. MNU seems to be insisting that we viewers identify our species affiliation.
Both Blu-ray and DVD editions carry a director commentary, a three-part making of docu, a piece on the Wikus makeup job and another on the task of acting with a prawn represented by a motion capture actor. Other featurettes do a fine job of covering the film's designs and effects.
Exclusive to the BD disc are interactive map-breakdowns of the "world of district 9" -- the spaceship and the altered Johannesburg. A demo of the GOD OF WAR III game is present, as well as a BD-Live connection. Finally, the Blu-ray package contains a Digital Copy of the film as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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