What's this? A high-concept yet relatively low-budget summertime science-fiction action thriller that delivers on virtually all of its promises? After getting the surprisingly excellent Star Trek reboot from the Hollywood side and the quietly superior Moon from the indie side, the summer now delivers a perfect marriage of the two movie streams: Backed by blockbuster machine Peter Jackson, but astutely and impressively devoted to bona-fide intelligence, District 9 is certainly one of my favorite films of the year. Equal parts big-time, eye-popping spectacle and contemplative social commentary, it's one of those rare films that engages the brain at the same time it's dazzling the eye. I say that any studio product that even attempts such a combination is worthy of a little respect, but when a Hollywood flick succeeds so resoundingly, it's quite simply a reason to applaud.
Sort of a cross between Cloverfield, Independence Day, and an indie-style "social outrage" drama with some actual cojones (with a dozen little nods to classic science fiction tossed in for spice), District 9 is about a massive spaceship that parks itself squarely over Johannesburg, South Africa, and how (twenty years later) the local authorities are compelled to move the "visitors" from one internment camp to another. Thus begins a horrific journey for a sadly under-prepared bureaucrat named Wikus, whose job it is to expedite the process. In other words, the guy is in charge of knocking on aliens' doors and somehow convincing them to beat it. Things go well and truly insane once poor Wikus gets hold of a substance that's equal parts alien, biological, and ... icky.
To say much more would spoil many of the film's coolest discoveries, but it's a glowing testament to producer Jackson and first-time director Neill Blomkamp that District 9 works on so many disparate levels. Those who are looking for an old-school "what if?" sci-fi tale that'd make Rod Serling smile will find it here. If you're interested in the snarky sort of social commentary found in only the smartest sci-fi stories, you'll be impressed with District 9. Fans of good ol' slam-bang action material will be highly satisfied, as will those who dig the creepy sort of "bio-horror" that shines in films like Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Something to please genre fans of all shapes and sizes, essentially, although it is an appreciably violent flick, so I say thanks to the producers for not pandering to the PG-13 crowd.
The film makes it easy to draw some basic parallels between its own tale and the history of racial injustice in South Africa. Heck, it doesn't take a detective to realize that Mr. Blomkamp is actually from South Africa! But tying District 9 down as solely an indictment of apartheid is to sell the film short. Like the best science fiction material, District 9 aims to shine a harsh and unflinching reflection at the world we're presently wandering around in, and damn if the flick doesn't make its points slyly, smoothly, and with a lot of smart confidence. Based on Blomkamp's own short film, "Alive in Joburg," and expanded in ways both highly intelligent and simply FUN, District 9 is not just an excellent time for what it has to say, but also for the effortlessly exciting way in which it delivers the cargo.
And a special note for A) the excellent work by 35-year-old newcomer Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus, and B) the low-key but truly fantastic special effects. Most of District 9 is presented in a "faux-documentary" style, which only serves to make the seamless alien effects feel grittier, somehow more matter-of-fact, and therefore more effective. Plus, once District 9 starts doling out the action, the documentary approach brings a clever urgency to the affair. Basically, District 9 takes one of our oldest movie pitches (aliens invade!) and somehow spins it into one of the freshest sci-fi flicks of this young millennium.