'District 9' mixes action, social commentary


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People sometimes confuse prawns with shrimp.

No one, however, confuses Prawns with people.

Prawn is the pejorative term for aliens who came to Earth two decades ago. Their motionless mothership has hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa, as the intergalactic refugees were shunted into tent cities, which turned into permanent slums in a place like Soweto.

Tension between humans and aliens runs high in "District 9," a thinking person's sci-fi film but with plenty of missiles, gunplay and gross-out moments, including the transformation of a man's hand into a blackened claw for starters, to satisfy the summer action addicts.

"District 9" opens with plans by a private company called Multi-National United or MNU to shift the nearly 2 million visitors from another planet to an alien relocation camp miles away.

Field agent and Afrikaaner Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been put in charge of the evictions and move. At the beginning, he seems to be a good-natured drone whose father-in-law picked him for the job.

As he tries to get the aliens to sign the eviction notices, he wades into a pestilent social stew where Nigerians trade the alien favorite of canned cat food for weapons, where interspecies prostitution takes place, where aliens pick through trash and adopt stray bits of clothing (a pink bra here, a red vest there) and where some extraterrestrials have never given up the hope of returning home.

'District 9'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Sharlto Copley, David James.
  • Rating: R for bloody violence and pervasive language.
  • Web site: www.district9movie.com/

Wikus unwittingly is handed the chance to become the very thing he despises, giving him the ability to see how the other, non-human, half lives.

"District 9" was inspired, in part, by the Johannesburg of the youth of Neill Blomkamp, director and co-writer. When his collaboration with producer Peter Jackson on an adaptation of the video game "Halo" fell through, they took a six-minute short Blomkamp shot in a Johannesburg shantytown and spun it into a feature.

Although "District 9" can be seen as caustic commentary on apartheid, moviegoers can look at the escalating tensions, street protests and signs such as "No non-human loitering" and think about anti-immigration fever old and new or ethnic battles or America in the 1950s and '60s.

Segregated lunch counters, the horror of learning your kind and kin are the subject of medical experiments and plans for shantytowns or concentration camps all seem frighteningly familiar.

"District 9" was made for a reported $30 million, but you would never know it.

The mothership hovers like some sort of sword of Damocles or frozen "Independence Day" invader. The extraterrestrials (insect exo-skeletons meet crustaceans) are otherworldly and yet have expressive eyes. A father-son relationship knows no species boundaries.

As Wikus, Copley is a find who transforms himself in just about every way throughout the movie. Blomkamp's blend of dramatic and mockumentary footage, along with real news video, gives it a patina of reality.

It can be heavy-handed, with Wikus' wife (Vanessa Haywood) a bit of a cipher and MNU's chief enforcer (David James) all black heart and single-mindedness. A passage calls to mind "Transformers," just as the kiddie flick "G-Force" did, and it's not the "must-see movie of the summer," as proclaimed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

But it's smart and fresh and proof that the phrase "dog days of August" no longer applies to the movies, or at least this one.

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. First Published August 14, 2009 4:00 AM


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