Tired of sci-fi movies where a species of hyper-intelligent, superhumanly strong and technologically advanced aliens attempt to wipe out the good people of planet earth? South African director, Niell Blomkamp's District 9 turns the genre on its head, characterizing the humans as villains who subjugate and abuse a marooned ship of insectoid aliens. Despite its 30 million dollar budget (peanuts compared to your run-of-the mill Hollywood CGI extravaganza.) the film is action packed, visually stunning and, to top it off, thought provoking.
District 9 opens with a series of interviews and grainy archive video clips summarizing the events of the last twenty years since a large craft settled in the atmosphere atop Johannesburg, South Africa. When no beings emerged from the ship and yet it remained stationary, a group of men drilled through the ship's hull to discover a mass of weak and starving aliens huddled together like a nest of cockroaches. The aliens (derogatively referred to as "prawns") were brought to earth and forced to live in a designated "non-human" areas, which by the film's present have turned into a sprawling slum, the District 9. After twenty years of living side-by-side, human/alien relations are turbulent, with frequent riots and bouts of violence.
In response the government plots to relocate the aliens to a spot hundreds of miles outside the city. This huge operation is put into the hands of a good-natured dullard named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley.) Sadly, things don't go as planned -- at least not for poor Wikus. He is sprayed with a strange alien substance and as his DNA begins to fuse with theirs, he begins to transform into one of them. As a result, he is hunted by the government who want to cut him apart and use his body to operate the aliens' bio-weapons. Eventually, Wikus becomes a reluctant hero, siding with the extraterrestrials in their struggle against humankind.
To his credit, young director Blomkamps doesn't want to make another dumb science fiction movie. Most viewers will draw an analogy between the alien's plight and apartheid South Africa. In addition, Wikus's transformation is filled with the dark comedic spirit of Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Despite its many positive attributes, I have one major beef with the film: the lack of interesting characters. The only major character is Wikus -- while he's entertaining in a blundering sort of way, he becomes grating as the film progresses. Also, his last-minute transition into an altruistic alien sympathizer feels contrived, as throughout the majority of the film he is so utterly self-serving.
The film's most impressive achievement is its masterful use of CGI -- with a fraction of the budget it looks at least ten times better than Transformers 2. The gritty documentary style, in addition to being an interesting approach to storytelling, assists in obscuring the over-glossed shine of CGI. Living beings are normally the most difficult to render digitally, but the aliens look fabulous -- a cross between the giant bugs of Starship Troopers and H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu but with the sensitive eyes of ET. One will be alternately terrified and sympathetic to these completely life-like creations. District 9 may not be the greatest sci-fi film ever made but it's a cut above most -- definitely not to be missed by fans of the genre.