By and large, alien movies are actually all about humans: humans worrying about what the aliens will do when they emerge from the mothership, humans building up a huge arsenal for when the aliens finally make it to Earth, or humans doing all the can to just make the aliens go away.
District 9, happily, turns all that on its head, and becomes, in the process, a science fiction masterpiece. Well-written, with even better acting and still-better editing and directing, it is the first alien movie in a long time to actually focus on the (here’s a novel idea) aliens.
District 9 begins by telling how, twenty years ago, the mothership entered our atmosphere and paused to hover above the sprawling metropolis of… Johannesburg (hint #1 that that this isn’t your father’s science fiction movie.)
The aliens themselves then came down to Earth (leaving the mothership to cast a perpetual 20-mile wide shadow over the South African landscape), and were met with the most unwelcome of mats. Whether you call it a relocation facility or a ghetto or an internment camp, District 9 is a jail (Population: 1+ million aliens) that allows the humans to keep an eye on their other-worldly guests.
When the E.T.s get too unruly and too numerous, the decision is made to relocate them to another camp, far away form the city. Multi-National United (a thinly-veiled jab at Haliburton) appoints our hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), to go door-to-door in District 9, informing the aliens that it’s time to pack their bags. Needless to say, he’s met with, um, some resistance.
What follows is one of the best ways to end the summer movie season that you could ask for.
District 9 is produced by Peter (The Lord of the Rings) Jackson and co-written and directed Neill (no, you’ve never heard of him) Blomkamp, who draws heavily on his South African upbringing to create what starts as a muted Apartheid allegory but quickly develops into a slam-bang, edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, both in style and substance, are certainly fitting. District 9 is presented entirely as a documentary, driven largely by the herky-jerky video from the crew following Wikus, and also by expert interviews, news footage, and video from surveillance cameras. It’s a technique that’s been done to death, but it works in spades with District 9 (as it did with Blair Witch), making it that much more compelling to watch.
What really sets District 9 apart, though, are seemingly little things, like the unique idea of having humans who are fluent in ‘alien’, having the added foil of Nigerian warlords running the alien black market, and having us walk out of the theater only to realize, hey, we were actually rooting for the aliens.
Add to all that the jaw-droppingly brilliant performances by both Copley and by fellow first-timer Vanessa Haywood as his wife Tania (which should make them into household names soon), and it wouldn’t be that surprising to see at least a few Oscar nominations result.
…and when’s the last time you could say that about an ‘alien movie’?