Hollywood has been making movies involving aliens and alien invasions since the 1950s. Of all the movies that deal with the subject of Earth being visited by extraterrestrials, most cinematic alien encounters are of the “destroy all humans” variety. Also in the most of these films, the alien visitors are usually little green men with enormous black eyes and highly superior intelligence. Both of these ideas about aliens, their looks and intelligence, have become so ingrained in pop culture that it’s hard to imagine any visitors from other planets looking or acting any other way.
Get ready to rethink your concept of how aliens look and act. First-time director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) have created one of the most original takes on the standard alien invasion movie. The film begins with South African news footage from the early 80s, of an alien space craft mysteriously appearing over Johannesburg. The alien spacecraft is enormous; it’s the size of a floating city. Where did the ship come from? Are there any survivors on board? When the South African government sends a search team up to the ship, they find aliens starving and malnourished. The government soon brings the aliens help. The aliens are housed in a “temporary” camp within the city dubbed “District 9”.
The movie flashes forward 20 years, and the aliens, nicknamed”prawns” because of their shrimp-like appearance, are still living in District 9. The prawns, unlike other alien creatures we’ve seen in movies, are disgusting, dirty and most are highly lacking even basic intelligence. The humans who share the city with the aliens are fed up with their uninvited guests. District 9 was originally set up for the aliens to get help and as a place for them to stay ’til they were healthy enough to get back home. We are informed through the movies’ many interview segments, with a range of authorities on the alien creatures, that the aliens lost a vital piece of their ship and can’t get it operational. The experts, who have been studying the prawns also believe that their low intelligence and violent behavior can be attributed to the fact that they are most likely low-level workers, who have been separated from the more intelligent of their species. Over the course of the two decades the aliens have been living in their makeshift homes, the district becomes a haven for drug dealers, violence, and even interspecies prostitution (you read that right – interspecies prostitution). As violence between the humans and prawns continues to escalate, it is decided that the aliens need to be moved outside of the city.
The man in charge of moving the aliens to their new “home” is the film’s protagonist, Wikus van der Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley). Wikus isn’t the smartest guy in the room and has only been put in charge because he married the boss’s daughter. As van der Merwe and his agency (The MNU) begin to move the alien residents out of their homes, the aliens aren’t willing to go without a fight. The MNU, and a private security company hired to help, begin serving eviction notices to the aliens. While serving the evictions, Wikus and his team are also searching the prawns dilapidated shacks for weapons and other contraband. In the District, most of the crime has come from gangs trading with the aliens. Cat food (the alien’s favorite dish and a near drug to them) is being traded by the gangs, in exchange for the aliens advanced weapons (even though the weapons can only be fired by having alien DNA). Wikus soon comes to the home of the seemingly only smart 7-foot shrimp alien, named Christopher Johnson. Chris and his son are also hiding a secret, and when Wikus happens upon their secret: a shiny tube of black liquid, it blows up in his face – literally. Van der Merwe soon finds himself throwing up violently and also losing his fingernails (in a The Fly-esque scene). These however are not his only problems; his left arm begins to turn into a prawn’s claw. After he is admitted to the hospital and the doctors see his arm, Wikus is taken captive by the MNU. The scientists soon find that his DNA is slowly becoming the alien DNA, thus Wikus has the ability to fire the aliens advanced weaponry. As he is made to shoot the aliens weapons, the doctors soon decide to harvest the nerdy Wikus’s body for further experiments. Not willing to accept his fate of certain death, he escapes from MNU and is soon the most wanted man in South Africa. With nowhere to go and no one to talk to for help, Wikus soon finds himself going to the very people he has been tasked with evicting, the prawns. While hiding in District 9, Wikus again runs into the computer-savvy alien, Johnson. It turns out that Johnson desperately needs the silver tube of liquid that caused Wikus’ “transformation” for a different purpose, and Wikus agrees to help the alien get it in exchange for a cure for his rapidly worsening condition.
Director Neill Blomkamp has crafted one of the best and most realistic alien invasion stories in all of science fiction. Blomkamp filmed District 9 using a documentary technique similar to last year’s sleeper hit Cloverfield. The first-time director was also shooting with some of the best HD cameras I’ve ever seen (the look of District 9’s HD blew away the very sub-par digital of Mann’s Public Enemies IMO.) The CGI of the prawns (and all of the effects for that matter) are flawless. Most first-time directors have to settle for low budgets and Blomkamp had to as well, but District 9 easily looks like it cost three times its $30 million budget. The acting in the movie by the lead Sharlto Copley is very believable. I began to feel for his situation and even root for him as he becomes more courageous over the course of the movie. I have a feeling we will be seeing more of Copley in the future as he gives a terrific lead performance in what is essentially a one-man show.
My only slight nitpick with the movie would have to be some plot holes, and its second half falls into a “man on the run” cliché. I would have rather seen District 9 focus more on the documentary-esque filmed movement of the aliens to the new camp, as I found this to be the most entertaining part of the movie.
Overall, District 9 is top shelf entertainment and one of the best releases of the summer. This movie will have other studios thinking twice about the quality of films they have put out. Neill Blomkamp is definitely a director that I know we will be hearing more about in the future. District 9 is a fast-paced sci-fi action film that fans of the genre will love. It also proves that a film can have both a message and ray guns that turn people into liquid. District 9 is certainly a must see film.