District 9 (2009) (R)

Neill Blomkamp's splash into the limelight is perhaps the most curious anomaly in recent memory. In the year that the Academy doubled the Best Picture category nominee numbers, "District 9" found itself with four cozy nods, one for the elusive and coveted "Best Picture". When you consider that it was going up against powerhouses like "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker", it seems even odder that such a complex, frustrating, and ruthlessly visceral work could manage to float to the top.
"District 9's" complexity lies with its storytelling, and not with its metaphors. Neill Blomkamp is not one for subtlety and the workings of his alien-not-so invasion story closely mirror apartheid. It would be his next movie "Elysium" that sealed his fate as a preachy director who may have reached too far for his limitations as a screenwriter (I for one, am one of those who enjoyed "Elysium" greatly for what it was). With "District 9" however, he crafts such an explosively splendid work that most of the critical audience were left scratching their heads. Why haven't we heard of this guy before?
I would argue that most of the film's success leans heavily on Peter Jackson's money as producer; but that's another story.
"District 9" is the forerunner to "Pacific Rim", a cohort to "The Hurt Locker", and the answer to the grim realization of "Alien". It never praises its extra terrestrial creatures, never gives them a pedestal to stand on, nor does it completely ostracize the human world (though let's face it, it does everything but).
In 1982 , an alien mother ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa and doesn't budge. There is no man in silver coming forth with a message from the stars, no menacing force that tries to thrash Earth into submission which leads to a joyous action sequence. No, there's nothing. After time, the humans decide that they will investigate and they find on the ship a race of creature that is dying, malnourished. These insect-like creatures are deemed "the Prawn" and they are brought to Earth.
It doesn't take long before the feelings of inequality start to settle in the minds of the humans. What started as a refugee camp has turned into a slum and the appearance of alien weapons prompts people to take drastic measures. They quarantine off the zone and call it district 9. No humans are supposed to travel in the zone; but there are some illegal happenings that occur within the walls that seem too trivial for the government to care.
When the movie opens, district 9 has become essentially inhospitable for human or alien life. The Prawns living there no are addicted to cat food (their drug of choice) and often result in petty thievery. They sell their weapons to a local self-appointed war-lord who gives them their cat food in return.
Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) works for Multi-National United (MNU) and he is assigned the task of relocating the aliens. He must go to the ghetto and force each being to sign a piece of paper and then the relocation to district 10 can begin. The first parts of the movie are shot in a documentary style, the film cleverly letting us know that something happened to Wikus and we are about to see the last few minutes of recorded time. Now, the film does transition out of this; but I find it rather seamless that way it comes from documentary to narrative film...that's just a personal opinion.
Wikus comes to the slums where he cross paths for a minute with an alien named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope). Christopher has been worked on a way to get back to his ship and it has taken him these 20 years to do so. On the day that he finished the last piece to the puzzle, (literally and metaphorically) Wikus comes to his door and confiscates the important piece...and from there, everything goes to hell quick.
What strikes you first about "District 9" is how flawless some of the visual effects are. Even a few years later, they still stand up, and they aren't abused too much. The aliens themselves are genuinely stunning creations of the big and small screen. It absolutely matches anything seen in "Avatar"; but we're not going to start making those comparisons now.
The second thing that strikes you is the odd feeling, the aura if you will, that the film has. It mirrors nothing made recently besides itself. There is this tangible dread, this gory beauty, and this horrible sense of stifling madness that Blomkamp manages to elicit. Add this to a stunning performance by Sharlto Copley in a really underrated role and you have the magic that makes the movie.
But Blomkamp's darker side emerges really ferociously throughout the picture and we notice how his statements start to fade into the background as his bone-crushing violence takes the stage. It's both unsettling and inspiring.
"District 9" does have issues though, and the racism is one. While crafting a story that tries to beat the idea of stereotyping killing into its audience, the movie doesn't realize the times that it does the very thing it condemns against. We still have a white male protagonist and we still have black people being viewed as witch doctors and 'tribal people'. Though these scenes are small, they do make for a hefty speed bump that Blomkamp has to vault over.
All-in-all, "District 9" is visionary if nothing else, simply by its scope and its style. The movie remains one of the better sci-fi thriller of the 21st century and is sure to be seen many more times. Attribute that to what you want, but Blomkamp's talent has to take part of the credit.

Score: ★★★½

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