District 9 (review)

District 9 green light

Aliens Go Home

Alien spaceship hovering over a major city. Military action in a garbage-strewn, graffiti-covered ghetto. Icky bodily transformation. Kick-ass suits of robot armor. It’s not that there isn’t a clear weight of genre history behind Neill Blomkamp’s astonishing feature debut: District 9 nods to everything from Cronenberg’s The Fly to Verhoeven’s Robocop, from Raimi’s Evil Dead II to Scott’s Black Hawk Down. It’s that even as half my brain was ticking off all those little nods with a geek’s appreciation for fellow geekitude, it’s that the other half of my brain was so floored with surprise that this could all still feel so fresh, so original, so like nothing I’d ever seen before. It’s like those optical illusions where your eyes switch back and forth from seeing the women in profile to the fancy vase: District 9 is simultaneously brilliantly innovative and profoundly indebted to the cinema that inspired it.

I know what you’re saying: Black Hawk Down ain’t really a genre film. It’s true. But on a gut level, the lack of artifice and tremendous plausibility of D9 owes much to that military action flick: this is, in many ways, as grounded as that in-your-face, based-on-real-events story. (And it’s as little like the 1988 flick Alien Nation as it could possibly be, even if at the shallowest surface, D9 appears to be aping it.) Watching D9 is not so much like watching a movie as it is like watching the news: Blomkamp — who cowrote the script with Terri Tatchell, based on his short film “Alive in Jo’burg” — opens with “documentary” footage of bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who’s very excited about his new job. He shall be heading up the massive task of relocating those one-million-plus alien refugees out of the ghetto outside Johannesburg they’ve been living in for the past 20 years — that would be District 9, of course — and into, well, a new ghetto further from the city. Intercut with that are “news reports” of violence erupting in the city and person-on-the-street interviews in which ordinary (human) citizens insist that the aliens have to leave, they’re not wanted, and why is the government wasting so much money on taking care of them, anyway?

I can’t say that the aliens — tall, insectile, chitinous creatures derogatorily called “prawns,” for their minor resemblance to shrimp — are exactly an afterthought in Blomkamp’s vision, but the way he treats them is so matter-of-fact that they become entirely as a taken-for-granted aspect of this alternate world. (The year here is 2010 or so, and the aliens arrived 20 years prior, or around 1990. Which we know didn’t happen… at least not as spectacularly and publicly as this.) There’s none of the fantastical imagery or whimsy that we typically get from even the grittiest of SF movies: the camera does not linger over the stuff it thinks is cool hoping to get you to drop your jaw. You will anyway, but it won’t have been forced.

It’s the details causally thrown in for authenticty that layer this world up into rock-solid realism: even the blatantly satirical ones feel real. The company Van De Merwe works for, MNU, has been handing alien affairs for years — it’s also the planet’s second biggest weapons manufacturer and would love to figure out how to make the aliens’ guns work. (You need prawn DNA to do that, and the aliens themselves don’t seem too interested in shooting anything up: the survivors are all drones, and figuratively and literally directionless without their dead leadership; they’re just about able to take care of themselves on a subsistence level, and certainly pose no threat of, saying, taking over Planet Earth.) Van De Merwe himself is a master of bureaucratic whitewashery and paperworking over legal niceties; imagine if Hitler worked at Dunder Mifflin.

And yet Van De Merwe is not a caricature — newcomer Copley’s performance is breathtakingly good — and when his task in District 9 takes a bad turn, he blossoms into something that probably even he himself never expected he was capable of. At the same point, Blomkamp ratchets up the intimacy: in one startling moment, he drops from his mockumentary style into an omniscient narrative mode. It’s as if we are drawn fully into the visceral reality of this world just as Van De Merwe learns it’s so much more than he ever anticipated, too.

And we’re hooked. I had the distinct sense that I’d never seen a science fiction movie before this one, it’s so perfectly executed. How could it not be? Its recent history may be slightly different, but this is our world, beset by the same dark impulses of greed, bigotry, and delusion.

Watch District 9 online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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