Alien nation: "District 9's" expansiveness, confidence, zest, frequent hilarity and technical accomplishment are a revelation. (Photo courtesy Sony Pictures)

'District 9' a Summer Sci-fi Surprise

Dennis Harvey August 14, 2009

In terms of the movies fanboy types were looking forward to this summer, District 9 was until very recently more like District 923. Compared to a new Star Trek, Terminator, X-Men, Halloween or even Judd Apatow, what was this? Something about aliens, yes. But New Zealand-produced, set in South Africa, directed by some nobody and starring no one. (In fact its lead is an old friend of the director’s who had reportedly never acted before—though once you’ve seen the film that’s hard to believe.)

God of geeks Peter Jackson was associated, albeit only as producer. An advance viral ad campaign was clever, but fuzzy. What the hell was the movie about? Decibel-wise, advance buzz was tumbleweeds-rolling-through-town.

Then it was screened at Comic-Con, where every fanboy and fangirl present had a 112-minute shuddering orgasm, texting all their friends during or in the afterglow. Entertainment Weekly put it on the cover this week as summer’s late-arriving yet possibly sole popcorn "must-see." Respected industry commentator Anne Thompson, who doesn’t even like such movies, called District 9 "a lifeline to Hollywood." She suggested it as antidote to $200 million "derivative toy movies," being smarter, better, more imaginative, and not excluding actual grownups from the target demographic.

Yowsa. Is District 9, which opens at area theatres today, all that?

Well, it’s not the most wonderful onscreen surprise I’ve had this year. (That’s still Nina Paley’s animated Sita Sings the Blues, which you can watch online for free right now…and should!) But it is surprising, and pretty awesome.

Sometime in the near future a massive spaceship descends to hover over Johannesburg. Turns out it’s got a flat tire, or something like. Stranded, the extraterrestrials—soon derisively dubbed "Prawns" for their ugly shell-fishy mugs, though they also resemble giant cockroaches and those nasty Starship Troopers invaders—end up housed in what soon turns into a vast, squalid E.T. shantytown.

Gang activity, theft, riots, and ever-mounting interspecies hostility over the next two decades finally lead the South African government’s "Department of Alien Affairs" to elect moving this by now largely-despised "minority" to a rural "camp" far from significant human population.

The bureaucrat charged with executing this "mass eviction" is Wikus van der Merwe. He’s played by Sharlto Copley, who looks a bit like Steve Carrell, and initially acts like the latter’s officious yet hapless Office wonk. But the role gets a lot more Bruce Campbell-y as things progress.

During Wikus’ first eviction-notice-serving raid, he’s accidentally spattered by a brackish liquid one particularly intelligent "prawn" (their gutteral, croaking "language" is subtitled) had been compounding in a makeshift lab. It begins to mutate our (human) hero. Things get increasingly dicey, dangerous, even morally complex from there.

Director/coscenarist Neill Blomkamp, a South African himself, made some notable shorts before this feature debut. Still, District 9’s expansiveness, confidence, zest, frequent hilarity and technical accomplishment are a revelation. The comingling of live-action and CGI is seamless, abetted by a "faux-verite" visual style in which some shots pass for surveillance camera footage and the like. I won’t complain either about the political metaphors you can’t miss here, which address not only Apartheid but stateless corporate "security"-slash-mercenary entities like Blackwater.

Given this, last week’s unexpectedly delightful A Perfect Getaway, and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds next week, August—when major studios typically dump dregs from their popcorn slate—is instead delivering more vigorous, visceral genre fun than 2009’s prior summer blockbusters combined.