movie film review | chris tookey

District 9

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  District 9 Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
7.21 /10
Sharlto Copley , Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt
Full Cast >

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell

Released: 2009
Origin: South Africa/ New Zealand
Colour: C
Length: 112

Excellent action sci-fi.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Highly original action movies don’t come along every week – or every year, come to think of it. District 9 is the understated name for a science fiction horror movie that might, in bygone decades, have been made on a shoestring, released to a few American drive-ins and called something a lot more exciting, like Killer Prawns from Outer Space.

Helped along by the production expertise of Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson, along with his 30-million dollar investment, this is a modern classic, easily the most imaginative of 2009’s summer spectaculars. Though the first ever mega co-production between South Africa and New Zealand, it puts to shame all those big, brainless Hollywood product this year – and yes, I do mean you, Transformers 2, GI Joe and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It’s going to be a stupendously huge, world-wide hit.

We’ve become used to movie aliens who are either superior beings paying us a patronising visit - Close Encounters, The Day The Earth Stood Still - or aggressive creatures bent on world domination - Independence Day, Mars Attacks!

This time round, they’re confused, helpless creatures who look as if they smell bad and wouldn’t make ideal neighbours. Emotionally, they resemble ET in that they would like to go home. But they’re not cute. They’re ugly. They breed. They scavenge around garbage. Essentially, they’re ten-foot cockroaches.

They refuse to assimilate or learn English. Their mother-ship remains immobilised over Johannesburg, but they have no way of getting it moving again. So they are confined to District 9, a shanty town rife with crime.

The human authorities, white and black, treat the extra-terrestrials as illegal aliens, while Nigerian gangs run a black market exploiting the newcomers’ nauseating addiction to cat food. The poor “prawns” live in corrugated iron shacks and squalid poverty, slinking around and grumbling crabbily, like an entire race of exoskeletal Gollums.

The film’s human anti-hero starts out as the principal villain, a brave move by screenwriters Terri Tatchell and Neil Blomkamp, possibly influenced by the great German film The Lives of Others. He’s nerdy, unconsciously racist middle-manager Wikus Van De Merwe, brilliantly played by Sharlto Copley, a non-professional actor who is South Africa’s answer to Steve Carell.

He has the job of evicting the prawns and transporting them to District 10, a concentration camp far away from the city. He approaches this task with groundless self-confidence, a dangerously patronising manner and a cheerful disregard for inter-galactic civil rights.

Little does Wikus know that his boss (Louis Minaar), who happens also to be his father-in-law, is interested in making a killing from understanding the aliens’ weaponry, which will only fire if you have prawn DNA. Unfortunately for Wikus, he suffers an accident which results in him absorbing some crustacean goo, and one of his arms starts turning into a pincer.

The good news is that suddenly he can shoot alien weapons. The bad news is that Wikus’ blonde, beautiful wife (Vanessa Haywood) thinks he’s been sleeping with prawn prostitutes and caught some terrible disease. Even worse news is that he’s turning into one of the inferior life-forms he’s previously despised.

As if that wasn’t enough, he’s being chased by his homicidal father-in-law who’s interested in his weapons potential and a Nigerian gang-leader who wants to amputate and eat his new limb, which he believes will give him superhuman powers. I suppose you could call this an arms race, kill-or-be-krill, or even torture prawn.

Running alongside this story is a tender tale of a father prawn who’s been working on a plan to save his race, and his shrimp of a son, who has a talent for technology. They need the help of our mutating hero, or they’ll end up as an exploding seafood cocktail.

Obviously there’s an element of political satire. Through implicit references to Zimbabwean immigrants, apartheid and Jewish concentration camps, the film suggests that it’s part of the human condition to find outsiders to victimise.

Hard-line vegans might also argue that it takes a beady-eyed view of man’s inhumanity to crustacean, but first-time director Neil Blomkamp (a Canada-based, South Africa-born director who’s expanded District 9 from a 7-minute short called Alive in Joburg) doesn’t labour this. He’s primarily interested in making a fast and furious action movie, with black comedy elements reminiscent of RoboCop, The Fly and Starship Troopers.

Thanks, I suspect, to the valuable assistance of producers Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens (who also collaborated on Lord of the Rings and King Kong) and first-rate special effects by New Zealand’s Weta workshop (who worked on both those movies, plus the ongoing Chronicles of Narnia and eagerly-anticipated 2-part movie, The Hobbit), he carries off his objective with great flair.

Stylistically, the start and finish of the film are shot as mockumentary, with implied satirical jabs at gabbling 24-hour newsgatherers and pundits who dispense prejudice rather than information.

But elsewhere Blomkamp makes us care, despite our initial misgivings, about poor, mutating Wikus (whose love for his wife becomes all the more pathetic as he increasingly resembles a giant cockroach) and the prawns, who aren’t all as dumb as they appear, and may in fact be more instinctively humane than the humans.

The result is a thinking person’s Transformers, with plenty of shoot-outs and explosions to please undemanding fanboys, but enough of everything else to persuade mature audiences that it’s far from stupid.

For my money, the apocalyptic finale goes on too long, and lacks the innovative spirit that has gone before - some of it, unluckily, has been foreshadowed by the recent movie of Iron Man. The overuse of the F-word becomes oppressive, as does the gory violence.

But it would be churlish to deny that this film’s a lot of fun, highly original and the most entertaining action sci-fi to hit our screens for many years. Whereas Star Trek was cheerfully old-fashioned, grandiose space opera, District 9 feels very modern, cynical and hard-edged.

I liked – and admired - it enormously. Expect sequels.

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