WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Twenty-eight years ago an enormous alien spaceship arrived on Earth and marooned itself in the sky above Johannesburg South Africa bringing with it hordes of starved emaciated refugees from a distant dying planet. After efforts to assimilate them into South African society failed the vast population of “prawns” — a derogatory nickname inspired their crustacean-like features — were herded en masse into District 9 a massive hastily-constructed refugee camp on the edge of the city that quickly devolved into a shantytown rife with violence prostitution and substance abuse.
The present-day South African government under pressure from its increasingly fed-up human citizens has decided to abandon District 9 and hand over control of the aliens to Multi-National United (MNU) a government security contractor/weapons manufacturer charged with relocating the refugees to a new camp in a more remote area.
In truth the relocation is only a secondary priority to the executives at MNU; their real goal is to unlock the secret of the aliens’ advanced weaponry and use it to reap untold profits in the arms trade. MNU’s efforts have heretofore been thwarted by a design feature on the weapons that restricts their usage to those possessing alien DNA rendering them inoperable by — and thus useless to — humans.
Tasked with leading MNU’s forced migration of the District 9's prawns is Wikus van de Merwe a well-meaning middle manager unaware of the company's true motivations. That changes abruptly however when he's unwittingly exposed to a mysterious DNA-altering substance during a routine sweep of the alien refuge camp. When Wikus begins to undergo a grotesque Fly-like transformation he suddenly finds himself hunted by his former colleagues at MNU who now see him as the key to cracking the code of the prawns’ powerful weapons. Shunned by human society and left with nowhere else to turn he heads back into District 9 where he forms an unlikely alliance with the creatures he’d once worked so hard to marginalize.
WHO’S IN IT?
Nobody you’d recognize unless you happen to be a devotee of South African cinema. District 9’s Johannesburg-born director Neill Blomkamp opted to use a cast composed entirely of actors from his home country with mostly excellent results. Leading the way is newcomer Sharlto Copley lending wit and pathos to the role of overwhelmed corporate whipping boy Wikus van de Merwe. Reminiscent of both The Office’s Michael Scott and Flight of the Conchords’ Murray Hewitt Wikus is the unlikeliest of sci-fi heroes which is one of the reasons why the film is such an unexpected delight.
District 9 takes an attractive premise and approaches it from an unconventional angle resulting in a wildly entertaining sci-fi satire that melds bits and pieces of The Fly Midnight Run Starship Troopers Enemy Mine Alien Nation and TV’s Cops. It’s a disparate combination to say the least yet somehow it works.
With the help of producer Peter Jackson and the many visual effects artisans at his disposal director Blomkamp packs the modestly-budgeted District 9 with an impressive mix of CGI and creature effects — especially during the film’s balls-out climax a mind-blowing blood-soaked battle sequence that will have audiences simultaneously cheering and cringing.
There’s little subtlety to District 9’s political commentary — a presumably deliberate artistic decision given the film’s satirical bent. Nevertheless it can get a tad annoying at times. The plot features an abundance of wild tonal shifts some of which are pulled off more successfully than others. In the lead role Copley occasionally betrays his acting inexperience by overdoing it with his delivery.
The climactic battle scene in which Wikus dons a massive Halo-esque battle suit and turns the tables on his pursuers is absolutely nuts — in a good way. However younger views and those with delicate stomachs may find the carnage-filled sequence rife with exploding heads and severed limbs somewhat unsettling.
According to producer Jackson District 9 cost around $30 million to make — a paltry sum by today’s action-movie standards. The production budget of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in comparison came in at a reported $175 million.
Ambitious high schooler Raya (Rutina Wesley) is sure she's on her way to the Ivy League when she gets into prestigious Seaton Academy. But then her older sister dies of a drug overdose and she's forced to return to the crime-heavy Toronto neighborhood she thought she'd left behind--at least until she can win a scholarship. Fitting back in at home isn't easy; former friends like Michelle (Tre Armstrong) feel betrayed by Raya's "desertion " and Raya herself doesn’t have much patience for their partying and lack of motivation. But then she rediscovers her passion for step dancing and becomes the first girl to join competitive guys' crew JSJ which is led by charismatic Bishop (Dwain Murphy). Before they can win the Step Monster showdown in Detroit though Raya has a lot to learn about teamwork loyalty--and (surprise) herself. Many of the stars of How She Move are newcomers--it's Wesley's first screen role--and they bring a refreshing earnestness to their performances. Raya's story may not be particularly original but Wesley makes her feel like a real girl with real problems. Similarly Armstrong gives Michelle a few more layers than the average "frenemy" character has and Melanie Nicholls-King is sympathetic and believable as Raya's Jamaican immigrant mom Faye who's determined not to lose another daughter to the streets. The male characters aren't quite as well-developed as the women but Murphy is charming as Bishop and Brennan Gademans has some great moments as his brother Quake. "Bad guy" Garvey (Cle Bennett)--a rival step crew leader--is pretty one-note but his gravelly voiced cockiness has its own appeal. All of that said the main attraction of How She Move--which debuted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival--isn't the acting it's the stepping. Whether the characters are confronting each other in one-on-one "step offs" (which despite their artistic skill are a bit giggle-worthy) or competing in all-out crew competitions their complex rhythmic acrobatic routines are flat-out amazing. Director Ian Iqbal Rashid and cinematographer Andre Pienaar film all of the action in a gritty washed-out style that give it a more sophisticated edge than many MTV films (maybe they should acquire more films in Park City...) which helps you take the characters and their passions as seriously as the movie does. Though it's never hard to guess how Raya's tale will turn out watching How She Move's dancers step their stuff will take your mind off the predictability.