Do we really need another alien invasion picture? When it's as hellaciously entertaining as District 9, the answer is a resounding "Yes!"
A huge spaceship comes to a sudden halt above Johannesburg, South Africa, stranding all its passengers on Earth. Twenty years later, the alien settlement has become a crime-filled shantytown; the visitors from outer space, derisively called "prawns" because of their resemblance to sea creatures, have worn out their welcome. They have refused to assimilate into human culture and stubbornly insist on speaking their own language instead of learning an Earth-friendly tongue. Local residents have had enough. The government hires MNU, a weapons development corporation with its own private army, to evict the prawns from their walled-off ghetto and relocate to a new tent city, where it is hoped that they will no longer disturb humans.
The premise immediately invites comparisons with Alien Nation, Cloverfield, District 13, Escape From New York, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, and on and on. The initial scenes only add to this impression by unreeling in a mock-documentary style, featuring interviews with human witnesses and excerpts from television broadcasts. But thanks to the ingenuity of director Neill Blomkamp and his co-writer Terri Tatchell (perhaps with a nudge in the right direction by producer Peter Jackson), District 9 swiftly establishes its own tough-minded, smart identity. Think of it as Independence Day for adults.
Roland Emmerich's 1995 blockbuster reinvigorated science fiction b-movies by stepping up the spectacle of an alien invasion to outlandish proportions, with state-of-the-art special effects and the destruction of billions of people -- not to mention dozens of iconic structures. The spectacular annihilation of much of mankind gave way to a story of righteous vengeance as the survivors battled back against tremendous odds, with the aid of a string of lucky coincidences that strained credulity well past the breaking point.
Charles Dickens would have been proud.
Not to pick on Independence Day as though it's the sole offender in the 'Department of Illogical Plot Twists and Unlikely Last-Second Saves'; it is, in fact, a fairly typical example of filmmakers bulling their way through china shops, sacrificing believable behavior on the altar of 'the wow moment.' It's become commonplace to expect deficient storytelling in blockbuster-style entertainment; it's the price we must pay, it seems, to cover the cost of large-scale explosions and an army of artists and technicians working feverishly behind the scenes to make the magic look real.
Refreshingly, District 9 upends expectations that have been lowered over the years by remembering that human behavior is the most fascinating special effect of all, with the inexplicable motivations of alien creatures coming in a close second. The aliens, it must be acknowledged, are not examined in breathtaking detail -- we don't learn about their home planet, the nature of their mission, or what exactly happened on the spaceship that caused it to stop in its tracks. Precious little of their culture is displayed; it can hardly be said that a voracious appetite for cat food and garbage defines a people. Are the ones stranded simply "worker bees," as one human describes them? Or do they truly represent the best of their breed?
One alien does come into focus and is placed in contrast to the human race, which is broken down into three categories: the complaining masses, the seriously flawed individuals, and the really evil bad guys. We see most events through the eyes of Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who appears to be a middle manager elevated to the position of supervising field officer for the mass eviction. His father-in-law, an executive at MNU, engineers the promotion, which appears to be motivated entirely by self-interest on the cold-hearted businessman's part. He doesn't much like Wikus, and in Wikus he has a convenient fall guy if anything goes wrong during the mass eviction.
Of course things go wrong! And Wikus is right in the middle of it, but the story develops in a way that I did not expect and don't wish to spoil. The trailers and other advance publicity have already, unfortunately, given away some of the developments, which is too bad, because I thoroughly enjoyed being surprised by the twists and turns in the narrative.
The script by Blomkamp and Tatchell is a marvel; I'm almost afraid to praise its "intelligence," because that might give it the taint of intellectualism (which is another argument altogether). Instead, I'll point to how nearly every plot point is achieved in a logical manner, with respect for the audience, and yet with a tweak to what might be expected. Wikus and the other humans -- and the aliens, too, for that matter -- are consistent in their behavior. True, everyone is acting in their own self-interests, but that makes sense under the circumstances.
As much as we expect our cinematic protagonists to be heroic and selfless, the sad reality is that most of us think of ourselves first and others second. We're only as evil as we think we are, and most people think they're the good guys. Likewise with the characters in the film.
Other good points: the quasi-documentary format in the early sequences gradually gives way to the telling of the story in a dramatic fashion. In other words, the filmmakers don't allow the conceit of a 'fictional doc' to get in the way. Sharlto Copley, an actor I don't believe I've ever seen before, gives a wonderfully human performance as the flawed, entirely believable Wikus, who wants to do what is right, but is forced by circumstances beyond his control into life-and-death situations that would test the mettle of anyone.
I'm rambling a bit, for which I apologize; I don't want to oversell the movie as the Second Coming, but neither do I want to understate the obvious: District 9 is a very good movie that deserves your time and attention.
(Rated R for graphic and explicit -- though not lingering violence -- profanity, and pixellated alien genitals.)