Every once in a great while -- perhaps only a handful of times each decade -- that rare film comes completely out of left field to let us know that there are still some original ideas out there, and that cinema can still be fresh and exciting. District 9 is just such a film.
Perhaps the most original sci-fi feature to come along since the turn of the millennium, it's also one of the very best in recent memory. Compelling, captivating, occasionally hilarious, and refreshingly unpredictable thanks to a smartly structured script that builds impressive momentum, District 9 surprises at every turn while holding a mirror to society in a way that will likely find the film ranking favorably amongst the best of the genre. Perhaps it's a blessing in disguise that director Neill Blomkamp's much-touted Halo project ultimately stalled out, because while he may well have been capable of beating the odds and delivering a video game adaptation that wasn't a total disaster, what we get instead is a complex yet compact sci-fi romp that's more than worthy of all the advance buzz. It's the type of potential genre classic that some moviegoers approach cautiously for fear of getting burned by the hype machine, but which ultimately exceeds those tempered, cynical expectations through sheer innovation and solid storytelling.
It's been 28 years since an enormous alien spacecraft came to a standstill over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. After cutting their way into the ship to find a million malnourished extraterrestrials, authorities ushered them down to terra firma and set them up in District 9, a makeshift refugee camp that quickly became a slum, replete with crime, vice, and overcrowding. The locals want the aliens gone, and a private firm called MNU (Multi-National United) has been assigned the task of evicting them to what is, essentially, a concentration camp. Heading up this mission is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a bumbling bureaucrat who basically serves as a figurehead for MNU -- which is more concerned with harnessing the visitors' highly advanced technology (read: weaponry) than looking out for their well-being. While evicting the aliens (derogatorily referred to as "prawns" due to their resemblance to the oceanic bottom-feeders), Wikus is inadvertently exposed to their biotechnology, prompting a strange metamorphosis that makes him the most wanted man on the planet.
Historically, science fiction has been the genre of choice for socially conscious tales that put our struggles into perspective through fantastical storytelling; The Day the Earth Stood Still did it with nuclear weapons, Planet of the Apes did it with race relations, and now District 9 does it with the topic of refugees. These are the kinds of films born of a storyteller's concern for humanity, and because of that, they resonate. Being from South Africa, director/co-writer Blomkamp no doubt grew up with a keen social perception of the refugee's plight (a large portion of the nation's informal population is comprised of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other poorer neighboring countries) and the issues that can arise due to xenophobia. So while District 9's setting alone sets it apart from the vast majority of sci-fi films, it's also of crucial importance to understanding the film's not-so-subtle subtext about allowing our fears to govern our humanity. But you don't have to be from South Africa to appreciate the dangers of this; just ask any American whose life was uprooted by Hurricane Katrina or any Afghan whose home was destroyed during the War on Terror. As the world gets smaller, our obligations toward our fellow man grow, but what happens when the system gets strained, and personal preservation supersedes civil rationality? That's when things start to turn ugly, and that's where we find ourselves at the beginning of District 9 -- where the locals just want the refugees gone, and don't particularly care where they're shipped off to.
But when these kind of ruminations start to get too heavy, it's the filmmaker's job to dress them up so we're entertained by the story while getting insight into the human condition. As Mary Poppins once sang, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." District 9 does have some pretty potent medicine, but just when things start to get grim, Blomkamp smartly satisfies our sweet tooth by shifting gears to sci-fi action mode with effortless efficiency. We're drawn into District 9's story by its deeply humanitarian message -- delivered with disarming humor and a knowing wink -- and then blown out of our seats by the kind of outrageous, high-tech action that gets movie message boards buzzing with wild speculation. Not only that, but it does so with a stylistic flair that seamlessly fuses the subjective style of cinema made popular by The Blair Witch Project with the kind of traditional narrative that is Hollywood's bread and butter. The faux news footage that opens District 9 plays with our perception, making the improbable not only possible -- as Rod Serling might say -- but entirely believable through convincing state-of-the-art special effects and keen humanistic insight. After that, the thrill lies in discovering where the story goes. And while that aspect of District 9 may be a bit more traditional, Blomkamp and screenwriting partner Terri Tatchell still manage to keep the thrills coming by humanizing the aliens as the stakes get higher.
By the end of District 9, we've seen our world irrevocably changed, and have been tantalized by the possibility that the real story is only beginning. In most instances this would feel like a shameless attempt at manufacturing a franchise, but given the situations the characters have been put through and the changes they've endured, it comes off as genuine here. Sure Blomkamp could botch the deal by going all George Lucas and dumbing things down to the point where the magic slips away, but for now it feels safe to say his vision is still uncompromised, and his dedication to simply telling good stories paramount. The energy in the theater following District 9 is likely the same kind of charge that surged through moviegoers after seeing Star Wars for the first time back in 1977. So while only time will tell whether Blomkamp is the radical sci-fi visionary he appears to be, if things don't work out down the road he'll still be considered one hell of a one-hit wonder.