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District 9 (2009) Print E-mail
Thursday, 13 August 2009

What wonderful bookends. While it wasn't the first big movie of the summer, Star Trek opened in early May, and became a blockbuster success, eventually grossing over $250 million and becoming the highest grossing entry in the series, even adjusted for inflation. Aside from its massive ticket sales, the movie was also a critical smash, earning top marks from many critics, myself included. And while it's not the last movie of the summer, District 9 feels like the last great entry of this summer's cinema. It's also the first movie I've seen since Star Trek that has made me feel as deeply or as effectively.

District 9 is based on director Neill Blomkamp's short Alive in Joburg (a short that impressed Peter Jackson so thoroughly that he offered Blomkamp the directing gig on the halted Halo feature film). The short detailed the interactions between humans in Johannesburg (or Joburg for short) and a population of alien refugees. The feature starts in a similar fashion, with several talking heads detailing the history of the alien craft arriving in Joburg, the government discovering that it is full of refugees, and their being put up in what is now known as District 9. It also shows how District 9 went from a temporary housing facility to a complete slum, infested both with aliens (derogatorily referred to as "prawns") and Nigerian criminals. The plot proper begins when we learn that MNU, a multi-national corporation that controls District 9, is planning on relocating all the prawns in the district to a new facility, further away from Joburg and its unhappy human population. As one might imagine, tensions are already high, and the threat of relocation may not be taken all too well by the inhabitants of District 9.


I'm hesitant to get into the specifics of the plot, because Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell have put together a story that rewards untainted viewing. That's not to say the movie is littered with twists and turns, but rather that the characters and situation are so compelling that telling you instead of letting you experience it for yourself would be doing you and the movie a disservice. Suffice it to say that Blomkamp makes you feel for characters, both human and alien, and has several sequences that had me on the edge of my seat, not even daring to breath in case I missed what happened next.

On top of all that, you've got a social subtext that is ripe for exploration. Johannesburg, being in South Africa, still ripples with the echoes of apartheid. By making the aliens the target of persecution, it removes the pre-built bias that people have about specific groups of people, and allows everyone to see these prejudices for what they are. Many accusations are made about the "prawns," as they're called (the actual name of the species isn't used, or, if it is, so briefly that it's immediately forgotten), from them being dirty to being thieves to being murderers. But, over the course of the film, they appear far more as put-upon and neglected, with unique individuals given the spotlight at various points. As things unfold, the audience gains more perspective about the aliens and the humans in an illuminating fashion.


Sharlto Copley (himself a writer/director/producer) plays Wikus Van De Merwe, a MNU agent who gets too caught up in District 9 for his own good. His performance is layered and nuanced, with a wide range of emotions. He draws you in and really involves the audience, making them feel his plight, for better and for worse. Equally impressive are the prawns themselves. Animated by the CGI artists at WETA, the little New Zealand company that could has finally done something that stands up to the greatest achievements of ILM. While Gollum was impressive, and made WETA major players on the effects scene, ILM's work on Pirates of the Caribbean's Davy Jones and the Transformers put them at the forefront of the field. Now, with the prawns in District 9, WETA has caught up, creating believable characters that seemingly occupy the same physical space as the human actors.

All of these add up to a movie that is much more than the sum of its parts. District 9 makes you think, makes you feel, makes you care. It reminds you of what is the best and worst in humanity. And the fact that it does so within such a specialized framework of the sci-fi/action genre makes it achievements all the more impressive. District 9 easily stands as one of the finest pictures of the year, and in the long run may even end up as one of the best of the decade.

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