District 9 announces itself as a total fanboy geek out in its opening seconds with four small words: Presented by Peter Jackson. Jackson, the director of Lord of the Rings, didn’t helm District 9, but his involvement as producer is enough to guarantee an exciting ride, and the movie doesn’t disappoint.
Based on a six minute short film called Alive in Joburg by South African director Neill Blomkamp, District 9 is a mockumentary that examines themes of apartheid in a sci fi context. The story begins with an alien invasion in Johannesburg, but instead of a “take me to your leader” situation these aliens are refugees, looking for a place to live. While world governments argue over how best to deal with the ETs they are housed in District 9, a makeshift township near the core of the city. As time passes tensions arise between the aliens and the locals. To quell a civil war between the human and alien population a private company, Multi-National United (MNU), is brought in to relocate the extraterrestrials. When a bumbling MNU agent contracts a mysterious virus that changes his DNA—transforming him into an alien being—the corporation’s interests shift from relocation to alien weaponry.
District 9 straddles the line between sci fi and horror. For sci fi fans there is an interesting speculative story about alien invasion and assimilation. For horror fans there’s cool creatures and blood and guts galore. It’s a wild ride, relentlessly paced, that mixes together the standard genre standbys—aliens, killer robots, spaceships against a Blade Runner-ish backdrop—with surprising twists involving African gangs, corporate greed, voo doo and cannibalism. Despite its now old hat mockumentary form, District 9 packs enough new exciting ideas into its running time to make this seem totally fresh and unique.
Like the best sci fi District 9 has roots in reality. The alien township is based on the real life District 6, Cape Town, South Africa’s former inner-city residential area. In the 1970s over 60,000 people were forcibly removed and relocated by the apartheid regime. Using gritty film stock mixed with surveillance camera footage, television images and lots of wobbly camera work District 9 conveys the intensity of human (or alien) rights being violated, and it is powerful imagery.
Couple that with the derisive nickname humans have for the aliens—they’re called “Prawns” because they sorta-kinda resemble giant shrimp—and it isn’t hard to imagine that simply inserting another racial slur and changing up the cast of characters could transform this story into a look back at apartheid or the Warsaw Ghetto.
District 9 is intelligent sci fi with a message but is also great fun. The first hour moves faster than a Romulan warrior on a Red Bull binge and the shoot-em-up climax would make Jerry Bruckheimer envious. Highly recommended.