Running time 112 minutes
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt
Consider District 9 to be the anti–G.I. Joe (a movie that I saw, unfortunately—I truly wish with all my heart I could somehow go back in time and get those two hours of my life back). District 9 was made on a relatively lean budget ($30 million), with no well-known actors and a 29-year-old director named Neill Blomkamp (who? Exactly.) And yet, District 9 is the most exciting science fiction movie to come along in ages; definitely the most thrilling film of the summer; and quite possibly the best film I’ve seen all year.
It opens with a faux-documentary spiel, which has gotten to be a rather tiring trope in other movies, but in this particular case provides some fairly helpful background information: More than 20 years earlier, an alien spaceship sputtered to a stop, seemingly out of gas, over Johannesburg. Upon forcing their way onto the ship, some intrepid earthlings discovered that the aliens, over a million of them, were terribly malnourished; they were then carted away to refugee camps while the world argued over what to do. Unsurprisingly, tensions increased over the next couple of decades, as the aliens (derisively called “Prawns,” and they do in fact look like tall and lanky shrimp!) started to multiply and chafe with their human neighbors. The aliens’ slum, District 9, is dusty and crime-ridden, and once their insatiable love of cat food is discovered (is this an Alf shout-out?), various scams and trades and violence follow. A private company called MNU (Multi-National United) is contracted to relocate the aliens from District 9 to a new camp outside the city limits. Of course, MNU is secretly interested in figuring out a way to use the sophisticated alien weaponry, which apparently can only be activated using alien DNA.
Still with us? All of these facts are established with breathtaking precision and speed at the onset of the film. There is no time to say, ‘Wait, there are aliens from outer space in South Africa?’—you just have to go with it (and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your brain adjusts to this reality). Enter Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a twitchy pencil-pusher who is put in charge of the evictions, helped by the fact that his father-in-law is a big cheese wat MNU. He stumbles upon a foreign object in the course of serving notice, inhales it and quickly contracts an alien virus that begins to change his DNA, starting with a slimy claw instead of a hand. And then things really begin to get crazy! Wikus is forced to go on the run, suddenly the most valued human alive as the only one able to operate the alien weapons; he’s hunted by MNU and by the Nigerian thugs who have set up shop in District 9, where he must try and hide.
This film really has everything: thrills, gross-outs (teeth and nails falling out, ack!), amazing special effects, a love story, xenophobia, with the shadow of apartheid looming like that stalled spaceship. Mr. Copley is terrific as he evolves in body and spirit—as he becomes more and more Prawn-like in looks, his humanity grows stronger. Peter Jackson, who “presents” District 9 and served as producer, is responsible for giving Mr. Blomkamp (who came up with the original story) the chance to make this film, and I’m guessing the risk will prove to be a prescient one. I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next (here’s hoping for a District 10!).