Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka, Kenneth Nkosi, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Louis Minnaar, William Allen Young
Written by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
MPAA Rating: R for bloody violence and pervasive language
Running Time: 112
Date: 08/13/2009

District 9 (2009)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Alien Apartheid

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

District 9 was shown only to select critics and withheld from the rest of us until just before opening day. Usually that's a sign of a bad movie, but even the critics who paid to catch up with it weighed in with enthusiastic responses. In less than a week, it has practically become a cultural phenomenon, and many fans are claiming that it's even better than Star Trek. After such a buildup I was rather dismayed, then, to find a crushingly average film. It has some terrific thrills and it's probably worth a video rental, but overall it's yet another case of action over ideas and messages over emotions.

The film is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, where two decades earlier a huge alien spacecraft came to a stop, hovering just over the city. Humans entered the ship and placed the aliens -- insultingly dubbed as "Prawns" -- in the equivalent of concentration camp, which is known as District 9. After all this time, humans no longer want to deal with the scavenging creatures so a plan has been developed to relocate them to new, smaller facilities a good ways out of town. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been charged with going door to door and getting the "Prawns" to sign their own eviction notices. While there he meets an intelligent alien (who has been given the name "Christopher Johnson") who is working on a plan for escape. At the same time, Wikus inhales a tube of black liquid and starts experience horrible effects, such as growing a "Prawn" hand, where his own hand used to be. This hand allows Wikus to fire the alien weapons, which are designed to react only to "Prawn" DNA and which humans have not been able to use. This makes Wikus very valuable, but it also means that human scientists want to cut him open to find out why he is able to fire the weapons. As many other writers have pointed out, the plot is also a collection of ideas from about a dozen other movies, perhaps most obviously The Fly, Alien Nation and Cloverfield.

Obviously writer/director Neill Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell intended several parables here, mostly about apartheid (hence the South Africa setting), slavery and genocide, but there's also a commentary on a Dick Cheney-style lust for military power. The "irony" is that the humans are the bad guys, though Battle for Terra already tried this same idea just a few months back. And just because the good guys and the bad guys are flipped doesn't mean that this type of storytelling hasn't already been done to death. The filmmakers' only other trick is that they've filmed the movie like a documentary, complete with realistic-looking news reports and talking heads. Unfortunately, that only goes for about 25% of the finished film. The rest of it is all chases and explosions, and no documentary film crew -- no matter how lucky or skilled -- could ever have captured it all. (It's a terrible attempt to replicate documentary filmmaking.) In reality, it just becomes an excuse for lazy exposition and for some of the most miserable, junky-looking hand-held camerawork I've seen all year.

Aside from all this annoying packaging, the meat of the film itself isn't bad, and is actually rather entertaining, once you can get to it. The alien and weapon effects look terrific, mostly in contrast to (and because of) the shaky, grungy-looking footage, and there are some spectacularly violent battles and tense chases. Copley is an interesting actor; he starts the film like a dweeby desk jockey but eventually turns into a reluctant warrior (he reminded me of Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead films). I think I would have appreciated the film a lot more if it had simply dropped with all the frills and messages and presented itself as a fun B-movie. Instead it has the look of something that is supposed to be "visionary," but is far too shallow and derivative to pull that off.

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