Fanboys were orgasmic when producer Peter Jackson previewed District 9 at July’s Comic-Con in San Diego. Variety tagged it the “thinking person’s alien movie.” I’m assuming Transformers 2 is the stupid person’s version. And since Michael Bay’s attack on the human thought process has already grossed $380 million in the U.S. alone, District 9 has its work cut out. Smart sci-fi movies, such as Duncan Jones’ Moon, are typically shuttled to the indie ghetto.
Not this time. Jackson and South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp have made District 9 a thriller-diller that trades in ideas without forgetting to go whup-ass on your nervous system. The R-rated District 9 is all kinds of awesome — and not just to geeks. Blomkamp, 29, is a talent to watch. Raised in Johannesburg before moving to Canada, he dreamed of combining his interest in sci-fi with the tormented world of racism and xenophobia he grew up in. District 9 is an expansion of the six-minute short Alive in Joburg that he made in 2005, which Jackson had already admired. Using a documentary style, with harsh lighting and hand-held cameras, he sets the scene for the vividly real horrors that follow.
A spaceship hovers over Johannesburg. It stalled there 28 years ago, when apartheid policies segregated nonwhites into Soweto-like townships. Alien refugees have been closed off from humans in the slums of District 9. Despite their mental acuity, they are demeaned as “prawns” for their crustacean-shell armor and the mouth tentacles that wiggle madly when they speak in gurgles, in our language and in their own.
Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell are not above having a laugh at, say, the aliens’ jones for cat food, cans and all, and the popularity of interspecies prostitution. But there is serious business in watching the world grow bored as the aliens fail to put on fireworks for the media by attacking or showing off. Instead, they follow the human model and form gangs, hassle cops, deal with Nigerian drug dealers and — yes — plan an escape by covertly building weapons.
It’s the artillery that brings in Multi-National United (MNU), the private-interest group out to make a killing from learning how alien DNA can unleash firepower. Gruesome experiments are performed in secret labs, and a plan is initiated to ship the aliens off to District 10, which is a concentration camp.
Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copely) is the MNU agent in charge of the move to District 10. Wikus starts out as a dupe of his MNU father-in-law. But once infected by an alien virus that turns him into a prawn, he learns hard lessons at the hands of MNU killer Koobus (a hissable David James). Their climactic faceoff is tremendously exciting. But the soul of the movie resides in Wikus’ relationship with two alien characters, Christopher Johnson (the superb Jason Cope) and his son, the computer-generated Little C.J. It’s here that the film — with reference points from Alien to Cloverfield — grows into an intimate epic. You’ll be wowed by Copley. His heart-rending tour de force deserves comparison to Jeff Goldblum’s in The Fly. And to me, that’s high praise. District 9, with a chump-change budget of $30 million, soars on the imagination of its creators. This baby has the stuff to end the movie summer on a note of dazzle and distinction.