In 'District 9,' An Apartheid Allegory (With Aliens)

An alien ship over the City of Johannesburg in 'District 9' i i

hide captionMetaphorical mothership: Three decades after extraterrestrials arrive on Earth, they remain quarantined in a violent, squalid Johannesburg ghetto. The refugee aliens aren't welcome, but they're also not allowed to leave.

TriStar Pictures
An alien ship over the City of Johannesburg in 'District 9'

Metaphorical mothership: Three decades after extraterrestrials arrive on Earth, they remain quarantined in a violent, squalid Johannesburg ghetto. The refugee aliens aren't welcome, but they're also not allowed to leave.

TriStar Pictures

District 9

  • Director: Neill Blomkamp
  • Genre: Sci-Fi
  • Running Time: 113 minutes

Rated R: Bloody violence and pervasive language

With: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt

(Recommended)

Filmed almost entirely on a giant South African rubbish dump, District 9 spins human trash into extraterrestrial gold. Charging through a three-day story arc with end-of-the-world intensity, its characters dare us to quibble over their unpronounceable names and unintelligible accents.

But then as their frequently-subtitled exchanges prove, words aren't really the point: When it's human against alien, we rely on our eyes much more than our ears.

Made for around $30 million — a steal at today's prices — this frenetic debut by Neill Blomkamp (a protege of Peter Jackson, who produced the film) grabs you by the eyeballs from the very first frame. Jackson's own cinematic technique may have congealed into a bloated caricature of itself, but District 9 proves he still recognizes talent.

As we learn from a brilliantly concise intro involving faux newsreels and direct-to-camera interviews with government drones or corporate mouthpieces, an alien spaceship stalled above Johannesburg 20 years earlier, its million passengers helpless and starving. Labeled "prawns" due to their love of scavenging and their disgusting-to-humans physical appearance (a hybrid of the monster from Predator and Pirates of the Caribbean's squid-faced Davy Jones), the aliens were corralled into an area known as District 9.

Now, however, the District has devolved into a stinking, violent ghetto, and the multinational entity in charge of it has decided to relocate the refuse-happy residents. Heading up the dangerous task of evictions is Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a dedicated bureaucrat considered expendable by his loathsome boss-cum-father-in-law.

An alien in 'District 9' i i

hide captionThey'd phone home if they could: "We didn't mean to land here," one alien explains. "We mean you no harm. We just want to go home."

David Bloomer/TriStar Pictures
An alien in 'District 9'

They'd phone home if they could: "We didn't mean to land here," one alien explains. "We mean you no harm. We just want to go home."

David Bloomer/TriStar Pictures

Wikus is a bit of a pill; officious and with a sneering superiority, he's unafraid of the prawns and not above threatening the removal of their insectoid offspring should they refuse to relocate. The early scenes, which follow Wikus and a harried TV news crew as they trudge from one hovel to another brandishing eviction notices, have a nerve-jangling tension spiked with dark humor.

Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe in 'District 9' i i

hide captionMNU In Black? Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is employed by Multi-National United (MNU), a company tasked with researching the aliens' weapon systems.

David Bloomer/TriStar Pictures
Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe in 'District 9'

MNU In Black? Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is employed by Multi-National United (MNU), a company tasked with researching the aliens' weapon systems.

David Bloomer/TriStar Pictures

Seamlessly blending the natural and the unnatural, Blomkamp layers visual gags (signs warning "No Non-Human Loitering") with aural (alien conversations that sound like extreme intestinal distress) while advancing a plot rife with references to E.T., The Fly and Alien Nation. References to apartheid are a given.

The wonder is that despite its obvious roots, District 9 feels staggeringly original. Channeling Cloverfield's on-the-fly shooting style and Paul Verhoeven's energy and anti-corporate sensibility (there's even a cameo by what looks like RoboCop's ED-209), the movie rarely holds still. And while this restlessness has predictable consequences for character development — only Wikus feels three-dimensional — it's difficult to care. As corporate bigwigs lust after alien technology and the aliens lust after cat food (can a Fancy Feast endorsement be far behind?), District 9 gradually narrows its focus and widens its ambitions. The final struggle between alien and human will be played out not on the ground but in Wikus' bloodstream, a war zone less visible but infinitely more consequential.

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