'District 9': The Uninvited, By Kurt Loder

From South Africa, a sci-fi original.

[movie id="372771"]"District 9"[/movie] seems an oddly misguided sci-fi movie. Where are the Hasbro toy connections? The skeletons of ancient TV series? There's not even a comic book involved. What is wrong with this picture?

Actually, the movie is based on ... what's the term — ah, yes: an original idea. It's a good one, too. The film does have aliens, but they're not the traditional galactic marauders. These amiable extraterrestrials were just cruising along over South Africa some 20-odd years ago when their huge spaceship suddenly conked out in the sky above Johannesburg, where it's still parked. The humans below managed to ferry the passengers down — more than a million of them — but then were stuck with the problem of what to do with these unwanted interlopers. Assimilation was out of the question — the creatures resembled big weird crustaceans with a snoutful of wriggling worms, and their native tongue sounded like a flock of ducks being eaten alive. They did have some interesting technology — especially in the weapons department — but it was bio-mechanical, and could only be operated by beings with alien DNA. Bummer.

The locals loathed the aliens instantly — they were ugly, disgusting, clearly sub-human. And so ever since, these uninvited guests — reviled as "prawns" — have been confined in a trash-pit shantytown called District 9, where they live in abject squalor, foraging among the garbage heaps for sustenance (they favor cat food, raw meat and rubber) and dreaming of someday, somehow, returning home. As the story begins, the government, bowing to public demand, has enlisted the operatives of a sinister munitions outfit called Multi-National United (MNU) to begin rounding up the District 9 populace for relocation to a faraway concentration camp, festooned with welcoming wreaths of barbed wire, where they'll no longer fan the resentment of the master species.

The movie obviously stirs thoughts of the old South African apartheid system (as well as American racial segregation and the Nazi genocide), but it's not a tolerance lecture — there's no message being pounded home. "District 9" is an action movie with a full payload of bullets, blood and much that's more wonderfully worse. The director, Neill Blomkamp, has a striking sci-fi vision. A South African now residing in Vancouver, Blomkamp became such a hot commodity directing music videos and TV commercials that he came to the attention of Peter Jackson, the noted New Zealand Ring-lord. Jackson recruited Blomkamp to direct a movie based on the Halo video games. When that project fell through, he took an interest in a six-minute short Blomkamp had made called "Alive in Jo'burg," and suggested they (and Blomkamp's writing partner, Terri Tatchell) beef it up into a feature film. The result is "District 9."

Blomkamp has given the picture a distinctive look. The aliens — worked up by Jackson's Weta Digital workshop, the Tiffany's of high-end fantasy fabrication — aren't deployed as expensive showpiece creations, to be paraded through for our techno-delectation. They're seamlessly embedded in the movie's scruffy visual texture, an urgent whirl of zoom and blur and general hand-held instability. The movie was shot without a script (there was only a storyline; the dialogue was improvised), and it looks less like a standard sci-fi feature than it does a low-budget documentary about an impossible subject.

The picture also gets a lively infusion of antsy energy from the lead performance by Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus Van De Merwe, the hapless government functionary who's been put in charge of the alien-relocation program. Copley, a South African writer and producer, isn't an actor (or wasn't — he is now). But he's just right, in an odd way, as a dim-bulb bureaucrat caught up in a ... let's say a transformative experience. In rousting aliens out of their miserable shacks, Wikus comes across a canister of nasty-looking black gunk which, klutz that he is, he inadvertently sprays on his face. As the hideous effect of this contamination becomes apparent (and it's really icky), he finds himself on the run from brutal MNU operatives and a vicious Nigerian gang boss, and falling in league with an alien called (in a resonant slave-name touch) Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope). Christopher says he can heal Wikus, but he needs the black gunk (which also has a secret alien use). Unfortunately, it's been removed to a creepy lab at MNU headquarters -- a place where unspeakable experiments are conducted. When Wikus and Christopher finally arrive there, things get wild, and a lot gooier.

The movie's own DNA is an amalgam of many earlier films, among them "Independence Day," "E.T." (Christopher has an ugly-cute little CGI kid) and the 1955 Hammer classic, "The Creeping Unknown." But Blomkamp has a gift for raw action, and like Jackson himself, back in his "Meet the Feebles" days, he's happy to home in on the most gruesome imagery. Can Wikus be saved? In the normal run of sci-fi movies, the answer would be preordained. Here, though, it's ... well, worth witnessing for yourself.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Grace," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "District 9."

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