Sunday, August 16, 2009

They Are Not Welcome Here

District 9

"District 9" is a sublime way to close out the summer movie season. This wildly original sci-fi adventure is an expansion of director Neill Blomkamp's short film, "Alive in Joburg." Produced by Peter Jackson, this movie is a high-energy, kinetic, and thought-provoking venture into genre films that explodes the boundaries and excites the nerves along with the mind. It's most curious to note that Blomkamp made the aliens, nicknamed "prawns" by the locals, land not in a major U.S. city like Manhattan or Los Angeles, but rather, in Johannesburg. Taking place in Blomkamp's native South Africa, it lends the allegory of "District 9" to be pinpointed on a certain topic. The country's parallels of apartheid and racial segregation are never mentioned, but they never need to be. District 9 resembles Cape Town's District 6 where the occupants there were forced to relocate. The implications reach further than just this nation, as well, with a representative notion of man's inhumanity toward man, and here, the non-human. Had these creatures not been claw-handed, steel-plated, and a cross between a lobster and an insect, they would look just like any other refugee population.

The massive spaceship landed above Johannesburg over 20 years ago and hasn't moved since. The aliens were then segregated from humans in what is called District 9, a place that became the slums. The aliens are treated with no respect by the humans even though the aliens are capable of intelligent thought and reasoning, and surprisingly enough, have very humanistic qualities. They speak in a language made of clicking sounds, and humans have grown to understand their language just as the aliens understand our own. Nobody really asks why the aliens came here and why they won't leave. All the citizens know is that they don't like them and want them out of their town. And yet there is one alien, named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), who holds the key to fixing the mothership and saving his people. He alone shows that the prawns are an advanced civilization whose lives on Earth are degraded. Every group, whether it's the white soldiers and bureaucrats or the Nigerian gangsters, treats the aliens with indignation. And yet it turns out that interspecies prostitution is the least of the problems facing the prawn.

As the movie progresses, the motives of the company in charge of dealing with the prawn, MNU (Multi-National United), are slowly revealed. The man placed in charge of relocating the aliens to a remote enclosure, entitled District 10 and resembling a concentration camp, is Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a nervous and fidgety paper pusher who is not at all suited for the job, and yet he's selected because his father-in-law (Louis Manaar) is the head of the company. Corporate greed bleeds through as the MNU conducts unsavory medical experimentation and has a lusty desire to discover the secrets behind the alien weaponry. Meanwhile, van de Merwe steps into District 9 manned only with a sweater vest and a clipboard expecting the prawn to respectively sign eviction notices, and he even begins tempting them with cans of cat food, which turns later to be in high demand for exploitation.

The movie's third act is when, in a move of irony and subtle humor, the initially ignorant hero of van de Merwe becomes the hope for all humanity. He teams up with Christopher Johnson after having been infected with a liquid that begins turning his own self into a prawn therefore causing the human and prawn barrier to blur, both literally and figuratively. They are relentlessly pursued by a vile MNU killer named Koobus (David James), and what results is a final showdown that is pulse-pounding. As the stakes of the escape chase heighten, along with the eruptions of violence and gore, the stand-out becomes the breakthrough, tour-de-force performance by Sharlto Copley. He makes a shift and shows tenderness toward Christopher Johnson who, in turn, proves to have soul and emotion just like the rest of his kind.

Neill Blomkamp and his co-writer, Terri Tatchell, don't pound a message into viewers, and they're never afraid to put the scalding political commentary on the back burner and bring some quality fun and terrific, eye-popping action to the forefront. The big selling point of "District 9" is the mockumentary style through which the story unfolds. Faux officials are interviewed and give insight into the prawn situation, and the perspective frequently shifts to what's meant to look like footage for news coverage taken from the angle of news helicopters, handheld cameras, and security cameras. And the special effects integrate beautifully and blend seamlessly into this live, breathing world. All of this gives the feeling of something that is fully grounded in real-world coverage, a feeling that makes reality a scary wake-up call upon the rolling credits.

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