Movie News & Reviews

'District 9' unexpectedly great

The great flaw in science fiction films where aliens land on Earth isthe built-in assumption that, just because they can zoom city-sizedspaceships across the universe, their societies are equally advanced.

-- Read Mr. Movie's review.

ETs tend either to have evolved beyond violence or to have perfectedit so hard they can kill you in their sleep, which they don't evenneed because drinking your blood is so nourishing. They don't reallyhave economies, either: everyone just does their job with no apparentneed for payment beyond the telepathic high-fives they're no doubtsending each other nonstop for being so good at operating gunneryseats or serving up intergalactic sloppy joes or any of the hundredsof other professions you'd need in a ship that size.

-- Times, trailer, theaters.

That's why the aliens in District 9 are so refreshing. They'renot a brilliant, well-oiled cultural machine, they're a throng ofcatfood-gobbling low-lives who probably flunked Starfleet Academy andhad to settle for an AA from the Proxima Centauri College of Weldingand Deep Frying. They're so incompetent they don't even seem to carethey can't get their ship back off the ground. You know these dudesare down for a beer whenever you ring them up.

Twenty years ago, a ship housing a million aliens became stranded overSouth Africa. With no way to get home, they were eventually gatheredup into one big refugee camp outside Johannesburg, where they live inwretched poverty.

The resulting crime and inter-species tension forces the government torelocate them far from the city. Bureaucrat Sharlto Copley is sent into help with the eviction process, but while he's in the alien slumsof District 9, he's infected with a substance that begins to turn himinto one of them. With his company looking to dissect him and reap theprofits of his hybrid biology, Copley turns fugitive, fleeing to thehostile territory of the alien city.

Not really what I was expecting, given the action-heavy trailer.Rather than being an epic tale of two species learning to settle theirdifferences with fighter jets and zappy cannons, District 9sticks close to Copley's personal tragedy, a grotesque, small-scaleaffair that has him torching alien eggs one moment and becoming one ofthem the next.

Newish writer/director Neill Blomkamp follows that transformation withthe skill of a grizzled veteran. There's a lot of exposition tounpack, but even in the early going, when things play out like ahistory documentary but worse because it's not even true and it's setin one of those parts of the world you don't really like to thinkabout, it cruises along with a confident momentum that lets you knowyou're headed someplace interesting.

Like with its world-building. Taking the aliens as a historical factrather than being all "Hey, here's these crazy bug-monsters frombeyond the stars," District 9 is heavy on the practical mattersof the gangs and crime and casual inhumanity that arise when wholepopulations are left without money or means. Given South Africa'sless-then-impressive racial history, it all carries a weird weight,and pays off big once those details tie together in the action-heavythird act.

Meanwhile, it looks about as good as a movie can look. With CG anddesign work from Weta Workshop (producer Peter Jackson's squad ofspecial effects-ninjas), the squalor of the sets and the grandeur ofthe mothership practically breathe.

The setting and story feel so fresh it's something of a letdown whenthe finale veers into "No way man, I won't leave you behind" territorythat could be straight out of a Lethal Weapon sequel, exceptwith a talking lobster-man instead of Danny Glover.

It rights itself as soon as it returns to Copley's physicaldeterioration, a disgusting, Cronenberg-like process that somehowevokes sympathy for a character who started the movie as an insecure,casually vicious government stooge. The knockout punch in what's asmuch a drama as it is a laser-powered action flick, District 9is one of the most unexpectedly great sci-fi films in recent years.

Grade: A-