Movie Review: 'District 9,' From Producer Peter Jackson

Sci-fi thriller about the escalating tensions between humans and a secret race of aliens who have been relegated to living in South Africa's District 9. Video by Sony/Screen Gems
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 14, 2009

The poison that permeates the phenomenal "District 9" is the same toxin that has defined so much of human history: The oppression of the Other. In this case, that means scaly aliens with feelers for faces who are confined to South African-style "townships," and who, in director-writer Neill Blomkamp's allegorical thrill ride, represent every tyrannized population since the institution of the pogrom. A sci-fi-fueled indictment of man's inhumanity to man -- and the non-human -- "District 9" is all horribly familiar, and transfixing.

That Blomkamp, a South African, would set his propulsive, kinetic and relentlessly nerve-racking thriller in a barely reformed South Africa indicates that subtle political messages are not his forte. Nor are they necessarily his objective. This is an action movie, after all: Cruel twists of fate, narrow escapes, well-deserved liquidations and unlikely alliances all make for a classic summer shoot-'em-up. Still, the underlying gravitas of the story -- in which the aliens are Gitmoed and used for gruesome experiments -- keeps "District 9" smart, even after the aliens start turning their oppressors into Heinz 57 sauce.

In a crisp, rapid-fire setup, "District 9" establishes how the ominous mothership came to a halt in the sky over Johannesburg, then sat motionless for months as earthly authorities pondered what to do. In frustration and desperation, a team was sent to cut its way into the ship, where the alien passengers were found weak and malnourished. Taken to the ground, but having no way back to the ship, the aliens became a sub-population of unwanted immigrants, whose disgusting looks and strange appetites -- they're partial to canned cat food -- make them a collective object of fear and loathing. As we reach the film's version of present day, the history has led to a crackdown, replete with evictions, violence and internment.

"District 9" is the rare arms-and-ammo flick in which the central human performance is as high-caliber as the hardware. Acting newcomer Sharlto Copley, as craven corporate tool Wikus van de Merwe, gives a performance that is nothing short of tour de force. Assigned to oversee the relocation of the aliens -- or "prawns," as they're derisively called (they do resemble shrimp) -- Wikus has gotten his job through his father-in-law, the head of the evil MNU (MultiNational United). He has no leadership abilities whatsoever; in carrying out the evictions of the aliens, Wikus demonstrates that he is, in fact, a natural coward. He's the kind of bureaucratic creature who overuses his authority because it's all he's got. He's despicable. And Copley's portrayal is precise and true. That he manages to make Wikus a hero, however marginal, is close to miraculous.

The film's producer, Peter ("Lord of the Rings") Jackson, has a kindred spirit in Blomkamp, who has a flair for the same kind of humorous violence Jackson showed early in his career (see "Meet the Feebles") and for a judicious but effective use of creepout embellishments: A prawn breeding ground is rich in viscous visuals; the claustrophobic alien hovels reek of dust and decay; the aliens themselves are rangy, revolting characters, almost ratlike in their paranoia and Otherness. They're hard to like, but we like them, just as we end up rooting for the demise of Greater Human Civilization. That we barely get to catch our breath is not a bad thing either.

District 9 (112 minutes), at area theaters, is rated R for bloody violence and vulgarity.

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