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District 9

The opening sections of District 9, a science fiction thriller that is being promoted with liberal use of the name of producer Peter Jackson though he neither wrote nor directed it, uses faux news footage to tell us about the 20-year history of a camp near Johannesburg South Africa where 1.8 million aliens have been confined since arriving on Earth 20 years ago. Shot in Tshiawelo, a since-demolished community built on a landfill on the outskirts of Soweto, the community quickly becomes a slum for the aliens, who are directionless, conniving, and ugly. (Not without reason are they derogatorily referred to as “prawns”: They resemble something you’d find on the lower levels of the ocean.)

At this point you can hardly help viewing the film as some sort of allegory for South Africa’s history of apartheid, or perhaps of the continent’s troubles with immigration. Surprisingly, District 9 intends none of that, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some axe-grinders accusing them of political insensitivity for wading blindly into these waters. (There’s no question that Nigerians, who are depicted as superstitious, murderous gangsters, will be unhappy.)

But all District 9 wants to do is borrow liberally from Aliens, Men in Black, and David Cronenberg’s The Fly for a special-effects laden adventure. As the film opens the government has given up on trying to figure out anything to do with the disruptive aliens and has hired Multi-National United (pronounced “Halliburton”) to move them to another location far from the city. Their point man is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a bureaucrat assigned to give the appearance that the company is adhering to the letter of the law. Wikus instead becomes infected with a virus that imports alien DNA into his system—useful to MNU because it provides a way for them to finally unlock the secret of the alien’s weaponry, which is linked to their biology. To avoid vivisection at the hands of his employer, Wikus is forced to hide out in the alien camp, where the excrement is just about to hit the rotary ventilation device.

District 9 is at its best early on, when it has the rude energy and humor of Jackson’s early films (Bad Taste, Brain Dead). It’s not a movie for people who like their sci-fi with heroes: Characters run the gamut from evil to stupid. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the whole thing is a buildup for at least a trilogy. But debuting director Neill Blomkamp, who previously worked in commercials and as a special effects designer, has put together a persuasively grungy world with enormous energy. There’s no reason why every fan of Transformers shouldn’t be planning to see it.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for District 9

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