Thursday, August 13, 2009

Territorial pissings

A smart, timely sci-fi film livens a dull summer season

Posted on Thu, Aug 13, 2009 at 4:00 AM

****
District 9
Studio: Sony Pictures Releasing
Rated: R
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike, John Sumner
Director: Neill Blomkamp
WorkNameSort: District 9
Our Rating: 4.00

Although District 9 is his debut feature film, the work of director Neill Blomkamp is well known to sci-fi buffs. His dazzling short films can be seen at his website, www.spyfilms.com, and they display the talents of a visionary. One of those shorts, 2005's Alive in Joburg, concerns an alien race who landed in South Africa (the director's birthplace) and have been marginalized and brutalized by a new kind of apartheid. District 9 preserves that premise and expands it into smarter, broader and sometimes conventional territory.

District 9 is shot documentary-style, a tag that's too often applied to any recent film with gritty realism and handheld cameras. This one, however, employs a structure familiar to the doc genre: talking heads, blurb-able quotes, a haunting score underlining aerial views of tragic devastation and a couple of key figures for viewers to follow. It's as if you're truly watching a documentary about an alien human-rights problem.

Throughout the first half, the film explains that the 'prawns,â?� a derogatory term for the extraterrestrial beings (who look like upright cockroaches), arrived decades ago in Johannesburg malnourished and seemingly stranded. We learn that the natives tried to co-exist with them, but as the years went by they grew restless and wanted the aliens out. To handle that operation, the government recruited a multinational corporation to actively pursue their repatriation, with a secret agenda of acquiring their weapons technology.

We follow the head of the operation, the geeky nepotism-hire Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a man so intoxicated by his newfound power that he condescends to and abuses the alien race. This half of the film moves at a brisk pace; the you-are-there vérité format delivers on excitement and is laced with intriguing sociopolitical possibilities.

When his cocksure curiosity causes him to become infected with the aliens' DNA, Van De Merwe becomes Public Enemy No. 1 and must seek refuge in the same concentration camp he helped usher the aliens toward. Suddenly possessed of the ability to handle the aliens' weapons, a technology his former employers desperately want to exploit, Van De Merwe is coerced into helping the aliens escape the planet with the promise of returning to his human self.

It's at this point that District 9 leaves behind the docudrama and settles into being a gory mission film. While still riveting, the action tropes that emerge from the new direction are disappointing compared to the expectations Blomkamp sets up. The premise delivers ' not only is the corporate tool forced to align with the aliens, he must also battle the de facto human warlord in the area ' and the Iron Man-esque final duke-out deserves credit for presenting a robotic smackdown that's easy to follow (pay attention, Michael Bay).

But the standard action plot demotes District 9 from a potential game-changer to simply a very good film. And considering the painful summer movie season we've endured thus far, you can't ask for much more than that.

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