Aliens and spaceships combined with sharp political sub-text and an insight into the human condition. How many sci-fi films deliver that? Debutant director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is audacious, original and absolutely gut-wrenching.
Two decades ago, aliens make contact with earth. Except that they don't touch base with the usual sci-fi film destination-New York, Los Angeles, Washington. Instead they hover above Johannesberg. These aliens aren't particularly attractive. They have wriggling worms where their noses should be, gorge on cat food and look like seven foot tall crustaceans, which earns them the nickname prawns. At first there is an attempt to rehabilitate the prawns but over the years the segregated camps turn to slums rife with crime and squalor. By now the good people of Johannesberg have also had enough of these unwanted guests. So the government hires a private firm called MNU to relocate the prawns to a new settlement that is far away from the city.
A nerdy bureaucrat Wikus, played by Sharlto Copley, is given the job of making the prawns move. But plans derail when Wikus becomes infected with alien slime and starts to turn into a prawn himself. Suddenly, the nerdy Wikus becomes the city's most wanted man. MNU wants to harvest his organs for bio-medical experiments so that they figure out alien weaponry, which only operates when aliens use it. Nigerian gangsters, who have stock-piled alien weapons but can't work them, are also hunting him down. Wikus' slow transformation forces him to confront the inherent cruelty and greed of his species. Eventually, Wikus only retains his humanity by becoming an alien.
Blomkamp who grew up in Johannesberg, creates distinct parallels to the country's now-dismantled apartheid system. The name District 9 is a play on District 6, which was a mixed neighborhood in Cape Town, until all the non-whites were relocated. But District 9 isn't just a South African allegory. It speaks to the plight and issues of refugees everywhere.
The racism, hostility and xenophobia portrayed in the film is a recurring note the world over. Happily, these political overtones never move into the foreground. The issues never overtake the drama. Using a mocumentary style, which blends interviews and found footage, Blomkamp tells us a riveting story.
Copley, who also makes his feature film debut, is terrific as the traumatized Wikus. So are the CGI aliens, who by end are the most sympathetic characters in the film. There are a few seriously grotesque moments in District 9 and the climax feels too much like a splatter-fest. But these are minor quibbles. District 9 is a dazzling achievement. If you're going to see one movie this week, make it District 9.