Exactly how would the world react if suddenly a spaceship carrying crustacean-like aliens took up residence in the airspace above a populated city? Most would probably imagine a battle for species supremacy like that seen in Independence Day. First-time director, Neill Blomkamp, pictures the scenario a bit differently. In District 9, aliens and humans manage to avoid a violent meet-and-greet and come to carve out some semblance of coexistence along the lines of South Africa’s apartheid. Blomkamp, who is originally from South Africa, embraces this theme of pervasive segregation yet applies a sci-fi sensibility that will surely surprise audiences. While the film touches on being overpopulated with irony and allegory, District 9 is one of the best films of its category in years — a stunning, seamless weaving of reality and fiction, complemented by a story-without-borders that will keep you wanting more.
Blomkamp doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the aliens, collectively (and pejoratively) referred to as Prawns. What we know is that they arrived more than 20 years ago aboard a massive now-lifeless ship that looms over Johannesburg. The film opens like a documentary, presenting interviews with various interested parties who explain that the aliens are worker-class refugees without any social hierarchy or leadership. District 9 is the encampment set up to house the population of Prawns, which has grown to 1.8 million. With the general understanding that the aliens aren’t phoning home and deteriorating conditions within District 9, Mulit-National United (MNU), a company contracted to manage the situation, decides to move the population to new, cleaner (and more restrictive) District 10.
Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) heads the “mass eviction” effort for MNU and leads a mixed team of company and military men into District 9 to secure signatures from the alien residents in order to effect a legal ousting. Blomkamp doesn’t explain much, but humans and Prawns have managed to establish a dialogue in which each can understand but not speak the other’s language. The director’s purposeful lack of details here and in other elements of the film may be jarring at first, but ultimately the approach creates a richer story free of minutia with room for imagination. As Van de Merwe and his trigger-happy crew make their way through District 9, they discover that some Prawns are hatching more devious plans than just hording cat food; the feline treat is a favorite of the species.
Van de Merwe, who manages to be a convivial messenger and an utter asshole at the same time, smiling as he kicks a young Prawn-let, comes into contact with an infectious alien substance after nosing around one resident’s shack. Blomkamp tracks the progression of Van de Merwe’s illness throughout the course of the film with markers like “4 hours since infection.” Eventually, MNU takes an aggressive interest in Van de Merwe’s condition and subjects him to confinement and tests. The tables turn and the man once in charge is now the man on the run. Blomkamp is a little heavy with the irony throughout many of the scenes which follow, though thankfully they’re complemented by some of the most seamless special effects seen in film.
Van de Merwe’s condition allows him to activate alien weaponry, which makes him — actually, his body — a veritable cash cow for MNU, who just so happens to be a global leader in weapons manufacturing. Blomkamp’s rendering of the alien arms and the resulting destruction they cause, particularly to a human’s body, is outstanding, sloppy sci-fi fun. While the film is heavy on allegory and social commentary in the first half, District 9 favors blunt, skilled violence in the second. With Peter Jackson‘s help as producer, Blomkamp is able to create marveling sequences that blur the line between real footage and CGI. Both the unique storytelling and jaw-dropping visuals are some of the best the sci-fi genre has seen in years, and unlike humans and Prawns, mix together perfectly.