In Theaters: District 9
There's so much that's good about District 9 -- so much thought, so much technical virtuosity, so much energy and pitch-black humor and narrative meat and visual detail and giddy-making sci-fi adventure -- that my first inclination is to suggest that you stop reading about it and just see the damn thing. Made for an astonishingly low $30 million by first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp (our interview with him here) under the guidance of Peter Jackson -- who clearly recognizes a kindred spirit when he sees one -- District 9 tells the story of a race of walking arthropods, the lower caste of an advanced extra-terrestrial civilization who've been corralled into a shantytown (the one referred to in the title) two decades after their spaceship ran out of gas above Johannesburg.
The story is told using a variety of methods, from faux-documentary talking head interviews to surveillance footage to handheld camera sequences that re-establish the fourth wall. Early on we meet our protagonist, Wikus van der Merwe -- played by the excellent Sharlto Copley as the sort of South African answer to The Office's Michael Scott. Wikus works as a white-collar drone for Multi-National United, a Haliburtonesque private military organization run by his not-so-nice father-in-law. When a wave of alien race rioting and crime terrorizes the city, he is promoted to the very dangerous task of serving them eviction notices and confiscating their highly-advanced alien weaponry in an effort to relocate the "prawns," as the locals refer to them derogatorily, to a new tent city on the outskirts of town.
It's at this point that the film really clicks into high-gear. Blomkamp's aliens aren't some vaguely rendered malevolent species operating with a herd mentality. This is an actual race -- a civilization, with their own fully realized customs and quirks. They are hot-headed but easily outwitted, voracious carnivores but crave cat food above all else, and beyond that, great care has been taken to differentiate each prawn from his neighbor. It's a dazzling achievement, when you really stop to think about it.
Also taking residence in District 9, and making life difficult for everyone involved, is a cluster of Nigerian gangsters (perhaps the ones sending out those e-mails that begin, "Dearest Beloved: My father is a 6-foot-tall walking grasshopper prince who left me 4,000,000 cans of cat food in a pantry off the coast of Mazambique...") who sell the aliens food in exchange for weapons, which appear to require actual alien DNA to operate. Of course, things don't go quite so smoothly for poor Wikus, as the film shifts into a second, more conventional half that owes much of its DNA to David Cronenberg's The Fly -- just one of dozens of influences you can palpably feel juicing Blomkamp's aesthetic throughout the film's brisk and exhilarating 113 minutes. But make no mistake: This is an achievement entirely of its own, and it won't be long before District 9 is the film to which others will find themselves paying homage.