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District 9 pushes boundaries of alien movies

Maija Gustin | Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When “District 9” made the cover of “Entertainment Weekly” a few weeks ago, the title was: “Why District 9 Will Blow Your Mind.” The movie hadn’t even come out yet, reviews were barely starting to trickle in and the entertainment giant presumptuously named it the must-see movie of the summer. And they were on the money. “District 9,” the first feature film from director Neill Blomkamp, wasn’t even supposed to be made. One Peter Jackson, famed for turning “The Lord of the Rings” into cinematic gold, watched a short film by Blomkamp, “Alive in Jo’Burg.” Jackson hired him to direct a film adaptation of the video game “Halo.” Production was moving along well until the studio backers pulled the plug over reported budget concerns. But, rather than waste Blomkamp’s talent, Jackson turned the project into a full-length adaptation of “Jo’Burg.”

“Jo’Burg,” in this case, is short for Johannesburg. Blomkamp was born and grew up in South Africa as apartheid was coming to a close. It certainly had an effect on him, because “District 9” – about a group of marooned aliens in Johannesburg forced to live in a ghetto called District Nine – is seething with undertones of racism and prejudice. It’s a science-fiction blockbuster with the budget of a romantic comedy and a message that is strong but never preachy.

The premise is this: The aforementioned aliens, called by the derogatory name “prawns,” are stuck in Johannesburg. Twenty years ago their ship stalled over the South African city, making for some beautiful landscape shots. They’ve been stuck there ever since.

The South Africans hate them and have forced them to live in District Nine, a makeshift ghetto. They live in shacks and scrounge for food, specifically cat food. But even in their confinement, the people of Johannesburg want them out. Enter Wikus Van De Merwe, brilliantly played by the new South African actor Sharlto Copley, a worker at Multi-National United. He is tasked with evicting the prawns from their shacks and moving them to District 10, miles away from Johannesburg. However, after some bad luck with an alien device, things start to go awry for Wikus. Think David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” awry. Chaos ensues, man and alien must team up to fight the evil humans, and people are blown to bits – literally.

Even though “District 9” is about aliens and weapons of mass destruction, it feels completely real and authentic. The prawns are beautifully crafted, using both a costumed actor and special effects, and seem totally foreign yet oddly human. They become sympathetic characters because they seem at times more human than the vindictive humans.

This realism is further enhanced by wonderful cinematography. The first 30 minutes or so of the film are shot in a documentary style, complete with interviews and handheld camera work. The rest of the movie is shot on grainy film that creates a realistic grittiness. The film ends up feeling like an exposé rather than a piece of fiction. The overall effect is mesmerizing. The ending is poignant and bittersweet. It also sets up for a now inevitable sequel.

“District 9” is beautifully crafted and full of scenic settings and intense action, but the story is what’s earning rave reviews across the country. The movie acts as social commentary about South Africa’s history with racism and gives a critique of governments’ mishandling of delicate situations. “District 9” creates an alien flick for a post-9/11 world both paranoid and searching for a solution to the world’s problems, and, cliché as it may seem, is still a story of love and friendship. It seems certain now that, along with a sequel, Neill Blomkamp has amazing things up his sleeve and an exciting future in film.