It’s tough to resist the best of this new breed of sci-fi cinema: bred on the paranoia-sparking immediacy of 24/7 surveillance culture, cheap and easy Webcams, and omnipresent cameraphones and fed by the sudden impact of cinema verite and drama-injected reality TV, Cops and Cloverfield. Jittery handheld shots are getting easier to parse, and we’re adjusting to the queasiness and the motion sickness, filling in the narrative gaps on our own, and beginning to converse fluently in the new visual language that’s developed alongside digital video, a decade after The Blair Witch Project.
District 9 is the latest of its kind – and it delivers a major payload. Imagine a less cuddly E.T., touched down in a much harsher, grittier, shantytown-marred Johannesburg, and subjected to a military-enforced, corporate-enabled apartheid that the characters of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers and Robocop would have understood all too well. Powerful, thrilling, and, at times, heartbreaking, District 9 is a different kind of alien movie, one that lends itself readily to political allegory. More earthbound but just as R-rated and unafraid of arterial spray as Aliens. More overly ambivalent about war machines than Transformers. More willing to go to there -- to the ugly yet logical aftermath of first contact, many, many mornings after the ordinarily climactic moment that the flying saucer’s doors spring open, as they did so memorably in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In District 9’s alternate universe, a massive alien ship suddenly, inexplicably appeared over the South African city, about 28 years ago. When humans finally worked up the courage to penetrate the vessel, they found a hold full of starving, malnourished creatures that they characterize as workers. The visitors' leaders have perished or vanished, and initial good intentions dissipate, as the aliens – whose gooey-looking, otherworldly bodies and lobster-like miens mark them as forever “different” - become feared and are considered violent. They are treated as subhuman pariahs, fit only to be segregated in a shantytown dubbed District 9 and slapped with a properly denigrating slur, "prawns."
Matters take a turn for the worst as the "alien problem" is outsourced to a private corporation, Multi-National United (MNU), that could care less about the visitors’ wellbeing and instead hopes to capitalize on their technology and learn to use their weaponry. At the center of this mess is hapless MNU pawn Wikus van der Merwe (Spike Jonze lookalike and acting newcomer Sharlto Copley), promoted by his ruthless father-in-law and not without his own moral lapses. Wikus has been tasked the unhappy job of serving eviction notices to the millions of aliens in District 9 in order to launch a mass relocation to more concentration camp-like digs. An encounter with a mysterious vial of dusky liquid during one of those official outings succeeds in changing Wikus for better or worse.
A surreal meeting of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters and Amistad come to mind in the way relatively untried filmmaker (and Peter Jackson protégé) Neill Blomkamp collides his everyman protagonist with the repulsive yet misunderstood aliens. We’re forced to answer our own questions in the pull of the narrative, as Blomkamp reels out his yarn, documentary-style, using grainy surveillance camera-esque footage and observer interviews. And despite the flatness of his dusty concrete-colored palette, the director shows himself fully capable of working in subtle emotional hues and switching up the tone adeptly: the movie starts as something akin to biting satire -- the aliens grow less than welcome as they seemingly derail trains for fun, and naively trade their sophisticated armaments for cat food, their culinary obsession – before both deepening and accelerating.
With action scenes that trump those of the recent Transformers sequel on a much smaller budget, District 9 succeeds at being a great ride, but perhaps more importantly returns sci-fi to its very real roots as a genre that has found a way to talk about serious issues under the protective guise of fantasy – and to make its ruminations stick in singularly unpedantic ways (a project aided and abetted by the new Battlestar Galactica). Tellingly, amid all of Blomkamp’s visceral, gutsy camerawork and violent scenes in which the guts fly and blood splatter the lens more often than not, the emotion, not the carnage, remains with a viewer. Few will likely forget the fear and horror in the aliens’ E.T.-ish eyes and hunched, cowed body language as they’re subjected to the humanity’s worst acts of inhumanity. As the saying goes – and Wikus comes to understand the hard way – sometimes you just have to walk a mile in another’s shoes.