Review: District 9 (spoilers)

The only name you'll recognize in the credits for this movie going in is that of Peter Jackson.

The name you will remember for a while long after seeing District 9 is Sharlto Copley.

The ads for District 9 oddly give away little about the major plot of the movie and that in itself was masterful. The commercials give the impression there are aliens living on Earth against their will and an all out war is taking place. We're trying to keep them here but for what reason? An interrogated alien in a dark room says in its rumble and click language that they just want to go home.

That's really all the ad says that's true. That dark questioning room isn't even in the movie.

The story starts with news recaps of the aliens and their arrival above Johannesburg, South Africa. Notably, the commentators find it odd that this hovering, city sized craft did not arrive over New York or Chicago or Tokyo or London or any other typical point of fictional alien contact. But as we later find out, there's a parallel reason to having them being plotted to arrive over a country known for apartheid.

We quickly catch up and find that the aliens are stranded, their giant mother ship inoperable (but apparently operable enough to remain about 1500ft above the city) and they have some technology we can use but not a lot of intelligence. They are called "prawns" in a derogatory manor; they resemble crustaceans and they feed and live off of human trash. They eat cat food. They are put in a shack community called District 9, but the conditions there are horrible and the neighboring denizens want them gone. MultiNational United (MNU) a fictional South African based conglomerate, organizes a move for the million and some prawns to a new tent settlement called District 10, 200 miles outside of Johannesburg. They've lived in District 9 for 20 years. Some MNU people such as Van De Merwe can understand them and they can understand us.

That's where the story picks up. We meet Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley), a middle management nerd who has been promoted to head up the great eviction of District 9. We see footage of friends, family and coworkers talking about him but you get the sense they are talking about him as if he were dead. You begin to think something horrible is about to happen, and that tension lingers throughout the movie.

The film is shot in a mix of traditional action camera work, CCTV angles, documentary footage and news clips. It chronicles Van De Merwe as he and an MNU force storm through D9 in order to serve each prawn (who likely can't read) an eviction notice. Along the way they find illegal weapons and activities and Van De Merwe's actions become callous and almost excitedly unfeeling. In a scene were he clinically but enthusiastically aborts a whole nest of fetal prawns, we begin to get the stomach churning idea of how humans really feel about these creatures. We want their weapons but can't use them. We want them gone but are unwilling to help. Our best effort seems to be segregating and forgetting about them instead of communicating with them to reach some kind of peaceable coexistence or help them go back home.

There is more to the story, but I'll let you see it for yourself. It's a lot I did not expect and will let it unfold for you as it did me, hopefully pleased by the experience. This was a hard movie to watch in that there were social implications and scenes of violence and brutality that were very visceral but undeniably human. The morality play was obvious and writer/director Neill Blomkamp pulls no punches but does not try to preach about the way human beings deal with what we fear and what we see as different. It would seem no matter what race, religion or even what planet you're from, human beings will want to segregate you and only an insane amount of conflict will change our minds. It wasn't told from a holier than thou standpoint, as though Blomkamp thought his tale was better than its viewers, but rather it was used as a backdrop to tell the story of one man coming to grips with his humanity.

Copley's performance is stunning. He came out of nowhere, apparently getting this role because he was a friend of the screenwriter. But I bet you he'll be an international star very soon. His transformation is really quite impressive and the absolute pivot for the entire film.

Don't go in expecting anything. The closest thing I can relate this to is Enemy Mine but you'll just have to see it.

My criticisms are of the nerd variety. We don't know what the aliens are really called. We don't know where they are from. The movie ends much like a typical Earth regional conflict in that it doesn't end. It was a single event in a larger conflict. We don't know why the aliens are here and we don't know if they'll ever leave.

This was one of the better movies I've seen in long time. It's a definite diamond.

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