Neill Blomkamp has made an instant science fiction classic. From beginning to end, the thrills magnify, intensify into a horrific drama that will live for the ages.
“District 9” is, by far, the best adventure of the year. Anemic and harmless efforts like the last “Star Trek” and the awful “Transformers” pale by comparison.
This adventure, set in Johannesburg, transcends and defies the usual definitions. If it is science fiction, it can also be classified as a thriller with political and economic overtones. The unforced allusions to other movies are manifold. Think of “Aliens,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Independence Day,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “City of God,” and Peter Watkins’ overlooked gem “War Games,” which presents a nuclear event in pseudo-documentary form.
“District 9” is in a class with all of the above.
DIRECTED BY Neill Blomkamp
SCREENPLAY BY Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
STARRING Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Mandla Gaduka, William Allen Young, Vanessa Haywood, Kenneth Nkosi and Devlin Brown
RUNNING TIME 113 minutes
When the movie begins, we are informed of past events. In 1981, an alien spaceship ran out of fuel and hovered over the city. When South African forces boarded the ship, they discovered thousands of malnourished aliens, which they then evacuated back to Earth. Years later, even the more liberal citizens are recognizing that these galactic immigrants are too unruly. As part of a massive government program, they need to be penned up and herded into a camp surrounded by barbed wire.
As you may note, the situations echo past and present events from the incarceration of Japanese citizens to Apartheid, from abuses of American Indians to Abu Ghraib.
These undesirables with lobster claws and spiny frames are called Prawns; their favorite meal is cat food. Working behind the scenes are government scientists eager to identify and extract aliens’ DNA. The quest is hardly altruistic. Already, they are killing and dissecting Prawns. The vast heartless project invites comparisons to firms like Halliburton.
Yet — and despite the numerous other allusions — “District 9” never gets in your face. It is not a political polemic as much as it is a down-and-dirty adventure that pounds us with relentless intensity.
I predict your initial reaction after the screening will be something like “Wow!”
Moreover, you are likely to be captivated by the performance of Sharlto Copley, a previously unknown performer who deserves to be in line for major awards. He plays Wikas, a bureaucratic stooge chosen to head the operation. He is a functionary doing his job, with an eye on a promotion. Then comes a hideous awakening, the details of which I choose not to divulge.
Did I mention the Nigerian warlord who wants the body of a prawn leader so that he can mine his DNA? Again, new developments keep us locked in our seats.
“District 9” bowls you over. It is a gem of a move likely to leave you exhausted. It is a masterful presentation of cinema vérité filmmaking.
Despite its R rating, it deserves to be seen by children 12 and over.
Reach film critic Dan DiNicola at mailto:[email protected]