Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Cast: Sharlto Copley, William Allen Young, Robert Hobbs, Jason Cope, Kenneth Nkosi, Vanessa Haywood

MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence and pervasive language)

Running Time: 1:52  

Release Date: 8/14/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Of all the bad luck in the world—in the universe, really—the poor aliens of District 9, emaciated and weak from a long trip, unable to defend themselves (in spite of being in possession of incredibly powerful weapons that still function), and craving any kind of sustenance, find themselves hovering over the planet Earth.

And they appear on not just any spot on Earth but Johannesburg, South Africa, in the mid-1980s. Apparently, the white powers-that-be at the time simply were not content with keeping the country's majority population as second-class citizens and decided to throw all the aliens into refugee camps.

That District 9 ignores the real history of South Africa for this alternate one is a bit dishonest and more than slightly troubling in retrospect (Apartheid is never once mentioned), but co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp's blatant allegory in the first half of the movie balances that out. Obviously, it's about apartheid, but the question remains: What's the movie's statement on apartheid other than a simplistic confession?

The movie's first half works just fine. We're presented with a brief overview of the aliens' appearance in a faux documentary style that incorporates news footage and interviews with the participants. The aliens are sequestered to a slum 200 kilometers outside of the city named District 9. There are signs throughout the area that proclaim, "Humans only," and "No non-human loitering."

Protestors rally against the treatment of our extraterrestrial visitors, while others raise signs telling them to go home. The aliens are given the derogatory nickname, "Prawns," for their overall look. Some have taken the Prawns' arrival for their personal gain. A group of Nigerians live amongst the Prawns, buying weapons they cannot use (The alien guns only operate when presented with alien DNA) in exchange for cat food, which one interviewee says is like catnip for cats with the Prawns.

Meanwhile, Multi-National United is researching the weapons and the Prawns themselves, trying to find a way to use this technology to mankind's advantage. Well, the company's advantage and some poor souls' disadvantage.

There's a very effective sequence that follows MNU's attempt to evict all the Prawns from this slum to move them into a new one. Most are willing to go along with the bargain in exchange for cat food, others fight back and are subsequently killed, and at least one argues the legality of the eviction notice.

These scenes work because of the mock-doc style, Blomkamp's outstanding use of visual effects, and the overwhelming correlation to the movie's central allegorical tie. The cruelty is palpable, especially a moment when an entire nest of Prawn eggs is razed by a flamethrower.

It's also during this sequence that the movie begins to fall apart. A few scenes follow a pair of Prawns and one of their sons as they try to find fluid from the Prawns' technology, carefully placing it into a canister. The doc style is broken in these scenes, and they signal a shift into a straightforward narrative that carries the rest of the movie.

Our human protagonist is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a seemingly weaselly yes-man in charge of the Prawns' relocation. In his action at District 9, he accidentally becomes integrated with Prawn DNA, growing a Prawn arm and essentially becoming the most wanted man in the world.

What results is the movie's withdrawing into a simple narrative, as Wikus attempts to help the aliens in their own goal and escape the greedy, pitiless hands of MNU, who want to use his body for research. He can, after all, use those nifty alien weapons now. What giant, international company doesn't want weapons technology that can turn a man into so much blood and gore?

Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell's screenplay becomes part chase and part extensive firefight in its second half, with only glimpses of the style (in the form of very occasional news and security camera footage) and none of the political metaphor that preceded it. Wikus' desire to reunite with his wife (Vanessa Haywood) is a weak substitute for it.

Blomkamp's prowess with visual effects is apparent in this section, lending the second half of the movie an admittedly visceral charge, but by this point, the story has left us wanting. Even the action itself is relatively pedestrian, even though the alien guns do some heavy damage and can even, in one moment, send a pig flying into an opponent.

The end result is that District 9 feels like a promising movie that runs out of ideas fairly quickly (The fact that it started as a short film is illuminating). Its early allegory may be blunt, but its second half begs for something even as heavy-handed as that to keep it involving. No amount of flying pigs can change that.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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