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District 9

Troubled relations with space aliens spur the action in this South African sci-fi thriller

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Most wanted: the newly contaminated Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley)
  • Most wanted: the newly contaminated Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley)

Twenty years ago, a gigantic spaceship came to a halt above the South African city of Johannesburg. When it was breached and boarded, tens of thousands of starving, frightened aliens were discovered inside. These creatures -- upright and scaly, soon nicknamed "prawns" -- were transported to earth, while their purpose, and that of the ship, remained a mystery.

Since then, the prawns have been restricted to the Johannesburg neighborhood known as District 9, a fenced-off, overcrowded shanty town, where the near-feral aliens scavenge for food and shelter. Encounters with humans have spurred mistrust, anger and violence on both sides. Thus, the decision to forcibly move the now 1.8 million prawns to a new "alien relocation camp."

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp's geopolitical-ish sci-fi thriller District 9 fleshes out his similarly themed 2005 short film, "Alive in Joburg." The action kicks in when Wikus Van De Merwe, a manager at MNU -- the private security firm tasked with relocating the prawns -- is contaminated while processing evictions in District 9. He is horrified to discover parts of his body turning "prawn."

But at MNU, they're verrrry interested. The prawns' own store of sophisticated weapons need alien biology to work, and now, Van De Merwe -- or at least, his body parts -- may hold the key. And if you guessed that the only place for Van De Merwe to hide is District 9, among the angry prawns -- then you're up on your genre mechanics.

But I say that in the best possible way. Blomkamp has taken some of the most basic elements of a sci-fi thriller -- an invasion with no discernible purpose; a scheming global corporation; a reluctant everyman hero; and a battle royale in which many bodies are gloriously pulverized -- and made them into a smart, well-paced, enjoyable action film. Despite its familiar parts, it feels fresh. 

The film has just the right dash of edgy dystopia, plus a current-events trigger (our free-floating anxiety about aliens among us who might attack), an easy-grab lesson about cultures repeating past mistakes and less-than-noble humans.

Because, of course, District 9 and the de-humanizing treatment of the prawns is indistinguishable from South Africa's infamous Apartheid-era townships and policies. (You may also substitute any number of other unlawful imprisonment of "aliens" around the globe.) "This is our land," says Van De Merwe, the pleasant bureaucratic face of the oppressor, "please will you go." Others favor wholesale extermination.

The documentary style that Blomkamp employs is bit overdone these days, but it works well with the material, providing quick snippets of backstory and dissenting views without straying too far from its central storyline, which charges ahead on very few plot points.

Sharlto Copley does great work as Van De Merwe, the salaryman turned weaponized human on the run. Van De Merwe is immediately recognizable -- the enthusiastic desk jockey who treats his field assignment with puppyish over-eagerness. (The film's first third has flashes of humor, much of which comes from Van De Merwe's cheery cluelessness; he wouldn't be out of place on The Office.) Yet when things go horribly wrong, Copley imbues Van De Merwe with fear, rage and alien backbone in an utterly believable transition.

Action-oriented sci-fi thrillers that aren't sequels, remakes or designed to sell toys are rare these days. If you're still jonesing for a satisfying summer movie, head for District 9. In English, and "prawn," with subtitles.

 
Starts Fri., Aug. 14.

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