DISTRICT 9 (2009, directed by Neill Blomkamp, 112 minutes, South Africa/New Zealand)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC For a genre that thrives on imagining new worlds, it is disheartening to see how derivative most modern sci-fi films are, happy to cobble together their scenarios from pieces of The Matrix, X-Files, Alien or whatever other proven blockbusters are lying around. After its cryptic ad campaign I was hoping District 9 was going to be an exception, and at least its Johannesburg slum setting is a novel location for the genre. The apartheid metaphor takes District 9 a fair distance before its cliché action, uneven direction and its references to The Fly, Robocop and Alien Nation (among others) lead to that déjà vu feeling that we’ve seen a lot of these ideas before.
Setting up its premise by inter-cutting various fake news stories, District 9 shows a stranded spaceship hovering a half mile over the South African city. The ominous craft lingers there for months until the government finally sends a crew to cut open its hull to find what looks disturbingly like the lower decks of a slave ship. The crustacean-like aliens (referred to by the slur “prawns”) are brought to earth and settled into a camp that over the span of years takes on the familiar look of the shanty towns that are the scourge of megacities everywhere. There the aliens fester for years, until the goofy bureaucrat named Wikus (Sharlto Copley, looking like a young Daniel Day-Lewis) is put on charge of a violent sweep through the ghetto. Wilkus is hard to like, he got his gig because he’s the son-in-law of the CEO of Multi-National United, the corporation in charge of alien control. He begins to engender a bit of sympathy however, when his manhandling of the aliens transforms Wilkus’ own hand into a giant prawn claw.
Around this point first time director Blomkamp drops the documentary camera style yet he never pulls us into Wilkus’ world, keeping us at an emotional arms length as he begins his transformation. All those allegorical ideas get left dangling as well, as Wilkus teams with an alien scientist and the film starts mounting its semi-preposterous actions sequences, involving a two man siege on the government’s heavily fortified bunker and a final shanty town battle where our team outruns a million rounds of machine gun fire.
Maybe it was the climax, so open-ended you could drive a franchise through it, maybe it’s the questionable humanism, in a film full of one-dimensional, crazy-eyed African thugs and aliens acting out trashy stereotypes of the poor but District 9 ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its half-baked, half-human parts. If I was grading on a summer school curve though I’d have to note that even being half-original puts District 9 ahead of most of this season’s overly-formulated blockbusters.