By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
In Johannesburg, South Africa, either now or in the not too distant future, it has been twenty years since an alien mother ship discharged its travelers and then unexplainably perched, seemingly immobile, several hundred feet above Earth. In the interim, its marooned souls have been welcomed by being put in a holding camp called “District 9.”
It doesn’t help that they don’t look like us. It never does. And, because we have essentially captured and subjugated the upright walking, exoskeleton variety of organism, our arrogance says they are of inferior intelligence. Yet we unreasonably fear them. Funny, we don’t feel that way about the plethora of four-legged beasts we’ve dominated.
There are ostensibly two movies playing simultaneously here, both ingeniously written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. One is sheer action and special effects galore, a seat-edged saga of revolution, heroics and strife. The other is an intellectual delve into what causes humanity to act out of fright instead of wisdom. The smart money will enjoy both.
Told in the newfangled, faux documentary style, ever-bobbing handheld camera and all, we are first introduced to the unlikely star of our show, quasi-government wonk, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). He has just been promoted. You see, his father-in-law, Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar), is the grand Kahuna at MNU (Multi-National United).
On first blush it seems a safe enough upgrade…a place to bury the fool his daughter (Vanessa Haywood) incomprehensibly loves. I’ve several cousins who experienced the same fate. But in this case, the left-handed elevation winds up the accidental making of the man. Therein lies, at least in storybooks and films, the ironic conceit of bureaucracy.
Wikus, initially a nattering, equivocating company man, is put in charge of resettling the undesirable inhabitants of District 9 to a politically more preferable District 10, far from the city. However, though totally disingenuous, the hardly veiled lip service to civil rights groups requires the Prawns (their derogatory sobriquet) to sign-off on the move.
Nervously laughing, chattering rationalizations to the camera as he traverses the slum for signatures from the clearly hostile “underclass,” Wikus inadvertently gets infected. Next thing we know, he’s got the sweats and the heaves…yucky black stuff, no less. Yipes, he’s growing a claw. Can you spell metamorphosis? This is gonna be good.
Before you can say Big Brother, MNU, the guv’mint’s pet private arm, is hot on Wikus’s trail. There’s nothing—next to vanquishing and taking control—that the world’s second largest buyer of weapons likes better than experimenting on live subjects. Yup, the reference is undeniable. Enters their main bully, Koobus Venter (David James). Boo hiss!
It’s his job to bring back Wikus, who has wisely taken it on the lam. Here’s the deal: Because the firing mechanisms on the aliens’ extraordinarily superior weapons are linked to their DNA, those evil powers that be haven’t been able to shoot them. Smit and company figure a human with an alien claw might make the difference. They’re right.
But tyranny makes for strange bedfellows. Only a while back, Wikus and an alien whom he dubbed Chris argued about signing papers. Now, through a series of events, they have fallen together in a somewhat mutual struggle. The spaceman wants to go home. Wikus would like his arm, and everything else, back the way it was. ‘Can do,’ assures Chris.
But it’ll take some doing. Suffice it to note that the big chase ties in with an enchanting extrapolation about the future of biotechnology. Specifically, without giving too much more away, they must seize the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail. It all connects to a sociologically ennobling message about inter-species collaboration. Heady stuff, indeed.
This is sci-fi at its best, a panoply of metaphors…witty, telling and as often uplifting as disparaging. Name a human foible, injustice or downright shame and, like they used to say in the Prego commercials, it’s in there. While the villains are either South African or the adherents of a Nigerian warlord who profits from the civil unrest, they’re all familiar.
We know these power-hungry demagogues from our own past administrations. Only the severity of their crimes against humanity differs from the wrongs depicted here, their Machiavellian wiles still fresh in our minds. So much so, in fact, that when treated to the truth for a change, we are mistrustful and hence still vulnerable to selfish manipulation.
A big prize or two awaits twenty-nine-year-old writer-director Neill Blomkamp for this stunning exercise in political science. Combining sublimely his filmmaking skills with a scholarly, two-fisted deployment of the First Amendment, “District 9” does a thoughtfully entertaining number on racism and government corruption.
“District 9,” rated R, is a Sony Pictures Entertainment release directed by Neill Blomkamp and stars Sharlto Copley, Louis Minnaar and David James. Running time: 112 minutes