Movie Review: District 9

Fellow movie critic Jason Zingale recently joked of suffering indie movie fatigue, in that the indies are beating the snot out of their big-budget cousins…and he’s actually getting tired of it. Are the big boys ever going to hit back? The long-term answer is yes, when Fox releases “Avatar,” but the short-term answer is no, as evidenced by the following of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” with “GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” Ugh.

Indie movie fatigue or not, thank goodness for “District 9,” as it pulls off a rather impressive feat in being smarter and bloodier than any other action or sci-fi movie released this year, which is no great surprise considering the man in the producer’s chair is Peter Jackson and his original goal was to make a movie based on the video game “Halo.” Think of “District 9” as “Halo” on Earth, with an immigration subtext.

The movie uses a blend of documentary-style interviews, news footage and standard movie narrative to tell the story of an alien spacecraft that came to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. After remaining dormant for months, emergency crews investigated and found malnourished aliens trapped inside, which they brought down to Earth and placed in an isolated camp – and not long after, a slum – nicknamed District 9. After more than 20 years on Earth, the aliens, or “prawns” as they’re derogatorily called, have outgrown their quarters, and are being moved to a larger facility out of town by defense contractor Multi-National United. MNU assigns desk employee Wilkus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to lead the campaign to get the aliens to agree to the move, but a chance encounter with alien technology begins having a strange effect on Wilkus, and it isn’t long before Wilkus is considered the most dangerous, and valuable, man on Earth.

Paul Verhoeven is going to love this movie. It has a healthy amount of social commentary – it does not take long before drug dealers exploit the prawns, and let’s just say that one scene will make Michael Vick very uncomfortable – and an equal amount of gratuitous violence, much like his “RoboCop” from two decades earlier. Even better, for being shot on a relatively shoestring budget of $30 million, “District 9” looks fantastic. They did not skimp on the alien shots, and the prawns’ weaponry is eye-popping.

From an acting perspective, the movie is essentially a one-man show. Wilkus is set up as a patsy – his father-in-law is the one who assigned him with spearheading the move – but proves to be smarter and tougher than anyone suspected, and it’s fun to watch him react to his unusual circumstances. Sharlto Copley makes this company man sympathetic from the beginning, which could easily have been lost considering Wilkus’ initial disdain for the prawns. There are dozens of other actors in the movie, but they play stock roles like the suffering wife, the kill-happy soldier, and the don’t-ask-don’t-tell scientists and doctors. If anyone rises above their part, it’s the district’s voodoo-loving drug lord.

“District 9” flips so many sci-fi conventions on their heads that making a movie like “Independence Day” today would be laughable. I’m normally one that recoils at how fast, mean, and cynical our society has become, but in this case, fast and mean are a good thing. The key is that they were smart about it. This will surely get lost a few years from now (see: “Saw” and the gluttony of bad torture porn movies it spawned), but for the moment, the future of alien sci-fi looks bright, indeed.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
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