Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Eugene Khumbayiwa. (2009, R, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 14, 2009
District 9 is a wrenching, riveting, occasionally violent, often heartbreaking, and, above all, socially conscious science-fiction film featuring seamlessly integrated CGI effects alongside flat-out perfect performances from its flesh-and-blood actors, and, best of all, it's a love story. In short, it's the most original and entertaining sci-fi film in ages. Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Canada-based filmmaker Blomkamp, much of District 9 is shot in a documentary, "you are here" style, and where you are is Johannesburg (Blomkamp is is a native of South Africa and grew up in Jo'Burg), a densely populated metropolis over which hovers a dead alien spacecraft of immense proportions. It's been hanging there, like some sort of bleak cosmic judgment, for going on 20 years as the film opens, and its crew and occupants – thousands of them – have long ago been removed from their vessel and packed into the sprawling, squalid refugee camp of the title. (Blomkamp never once mentions the word "apartheid," but the reference to South Africa's divided past, not to mention that of many other nations, our own included, is there for those who choose to see it.) District 9 begins on the eve of a mass, forced resettlement of these alien refugees to an area far from Jo'Burg's unsettled, xenophobic citizenry. Overseen by the ominously privatized military/corporate entity Multinational United, the mass eviction of the aliens – derisively referred to as "prawns" by the human population due to their their insectile, bipedal/crustacean appearance – is headed up by a middle-managment stooge, Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley, in a flat-out amazing acting debut), a fidgety, seemingly fatuous but ultimately capable everyman who at first can't believe the good luck of his sudden promotion and then, as events quickly spin way, way out of control, realizes he's little more than a pawn in a horrific (but all the more believable for it) multinational/intergalactic experiment. The aliens, virtually all of them, are played by actor Cope, who was shot live on set and had his alien likeness rotoscoped around him (itself an amazing special-effects achievement). I'm hesitant to say any more about the specifics of District 9 – the script was co-written by Blomkamp with Terri Tatchell – because so many of this remarkable film's terrible wonders are best experienced as they unfold in front of you. Suffice it to say that Blomkamp and his entire cast and crew have created an instant genre classic that transcends the self-limiting ghetto implied by the term "science fiction" and instead, like precursors such as Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still, engages not only the mind but the heart as well. It's magnificent.