Gritty sci-fi thriller explores an Earth in which aliens suffer apartheid.
Would we welcome alien visitors if they weren’t attractive? What if they needed our help? What if they couldn’t offer us anything? Those are the questions posed by the setup for this month’s District 9, a South Africa-set thriller about oppressed aliens and the human corporation exploiting them for money. It’s the first feature-length effort from commercial and short film director Neill Blomkamp, based on the 2005 short Alive In Joburg that he co-directed.
Youv’e probably seen the murky, cryptic ads online and on television already. The story takes up 28 years after an alien vessel appeared without warning above Johannesburg, carrying refugees fleeing the destruction of their world. The aliens have precious little in technology or resources to offer humanity, and in time find themselves restricted to the titular outlying area of the city. Most of the world views them as a frustrating letdown, unwelcome tenants better left forgotten. The world governments have left their welfare to the Multi-National United, or MNU, a conglomerate about as interested in the aliens’ welfare as most HMO’s care about their patients.
MNU stands to reap huge profits if they can adapt the aliens’ technology for human use. Without alien DNA such access remains impossible, unti employee Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) contracts a virus while participating in a forced relocation of the aliens’ ghetto. The virus changes his DNA to more closely resemble that of the aliens, instantly making him the target of his former employers. Seeking shelter, he hides among the aliens inside District 9′s network of shacks and warrens.
We’re intrigued enough by the Alien Nation meets Catch A Fire setup to forgive the kinda stale running-man premise, which for a while now has seemed too much like the default story structure for great settings that need a plot. The alien DNA plot device feels pretty familiar, too, though no real examples of its overuse come immediately to mind outside of the Species franchise and we imagine tons of straight-to-DVD stuff. But there’s an additional potential story potential, presented by some promotional materials, that show some humans working to extend equal rights to the aliens. That would be so much more interesting than the stormtroopers-chase-man footage of the trailer, adding as it would another layer of allegory to the premise.
Still, the film looks great, with tons of gritty veracity and sun-soaked menace, sort of like Terminator: Salvation but without the patina of big money that left so much of that misfire feeling disingenuous. The aliens are oddly pitiable, lonely and disadvantaged even before the plot’s revelations come to light. As such, we hope the cruel streak that has snaked through much of producer Peter Jackson’s work doesn’t extend to Blomkamp’s direction, too, or the film could prove tedious pretty quick. Leaden, heavy-handed science fiction is still leaden and heavy-handed.
Jackson hired Blomkamp after plans for the long-hyped Halo movie fell through, and it’s possible fans will see District 9 as thin soup compared to the big-screen translation of the staggeringly popular video game. It’s been a while since the Lord of the Rings auteur really surprised us, and Blomkamp is largely an unproven talent. But its mid-August debut puts it as the first real science fiction to come out since July’s Moon, and if it’s half as good as that debut effort by Duncan Jones it’ll make a fine end-of-summer surprise.
District 9 opens nationwide August 14.
- Michael Kabel