Movie review by Greg Carlson
“District 9,” a zany sci-fi social commentary blended with bugs-on-the-run brio, arose from the ashes of the failed “Halo” movie that was to have been shepherded by Peter Jackson as producer and visual effects specialist Neill Blomkamp in the director’s chair. Jackson purportedly offered Blomkamp roughly 30 million bucks to come up with something in the wake of the “Halo” implosion, and Blomkamp responded with an expansion of his short movie “Alive in Joburg.” Set mostly in a hellish shantytown in Johannesburg, South Africa, “District 9” imagines a world in which stranded aliens are treated with the same kind of contempt that ruling classes have shown toward the marginalized in numerous historical examples. While the film’s setting makes apartheid the most obvious parallel, Blomkamp applies his brush liberally enough to suggest hints of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps and ethnically motivated conflicts from the Middle East to Eastern Europe.
Mid-level field operative Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) works for the ominous Multi-National United, a Halliburton-like contractor retained by the South African government to relocate the alien encampment of the title to a new location outside the city limits. While Copley’s unfamiliar face is refreshing, the character he plays is a buffoonish dolt whose empty-headed pronouncements make him an ideal candidate for employment at Wernham Hogg paper merchants. Virtually everything of narrative importance pivots around Wikus, and his fawning, deferential obsequiousness (his father-in-law, who promoted him, comically denies charges of nepotism) initially renders him difficult to like.
“District 9” rockets by so quickly that many of the movie’s hemorrhaging plot gaps won’t bother the grinning customers. A second viewing might erase some doubts, but Blomkamp and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell fudge too often to earn a free pass. One wonders why the brutalized prawns don’t turn their superior firepower against their human oppressors. For that matter, it makes very little sense that the shady MNU corporation for which Wikus works would seek to eradicate their only link to the technology they so desperately want to control. Why don’t the humans force an enslaved, terrorized prawn to operate the alien weaponry?
Tonally, Blomkamp attempts to balance black comedy with a superficial soulfulness that aligns viewer sympathy with the beleaguered extra terrestrials. Disappointingly, only one alien creature (who sports the wryly evocative salvation-oriented name Christopher Johnson) is presented as a thoroughly developed character in his/its own right, and any explanations that the remaining horde of prawns are simply too docile, scared or stupid to stand up for themselves merely reinforces the stereotyping used by dominant groups to justify cruelty against the weak “other.”
Action junkies will relish the movie’s final sections, when Blomkamp shifts all the energy to a video game-style bullet festival. Recalling the most violent gut punches of “RoboCop.” “Starship Troopers,” and “Aliens,” “District 9” gleefully jacks up a body count worthy of any first person shooter, as scores of expendable human mercenaries are ripped apart in showers of exploding gobs of flesh, limbs, and brains. The visceral thrill ride diminishes much of the impact made by the intriguing political and social questions posed in the film’s first third and also allows the filmmaker to largely ignore – at least onscreen – the segregationist issues raised at the movie’s outset.