What happens when you combine The Fly, Midnight Run, Starship Troopers, Enemy Mine, Alien Nation, The Office and Cops? We’re not quite sure, but it’s called District 9, and it’s easily the most wildly inventive action movie to grace the multiplex in a long time.
If you live in or near a major U.S. city, chances are you've encountered examples of District 9’s quasi-viral marketing campaign, which painted assorted benches and billboards with profiles of insect-like creatures and ominous warnings like “Picking Up Non-Humans Is Forbidden“ and “For Humans Only, Non-Humans Banned!” For better or worse, that campaign, along with the movie's alien-centered premise and pseudo-documentary style, has led some to christen it this year’s Cloverfield. But whereas that film amounted to little more than an overly-hyped sci-fi rehash of The Blair Witch Project, District 9 is a blistering, wholly original amalgam of different genres and influences, equal parts mockumentary, political satire, buddy comedy, techno thriller, sci-fi epic and splatter film.
Directed by South African-born Neill Blomkamp, District 9 takes the traditional sci-fi alien-invasion premise and adds an intriguing twist: Unlike the mostly hostile predators of cinematic lore, the extraterrestrials of District 9 are peaceful refugees who arrive on Earth starving and emaciated. Precluded from returning home by a broken-down spaceship and incapable of assimilating into human society, the vast population of “prawns” — a derogatory nickname inspired by the creatures’ crustacean-like features — are herded en masse into a massive refugee camp known as District 9.
With the massive, immovable hull of their spaceship suspended permanently above the Johannesburg skyline, the second-class citizens of District 9 dwell in virtual squalor, their camp gradually devolving into a shantytown rife with violence, prostitution and substance abuse. (In the case of the aliens, the preferred substance is cat food.)
As one might infer from the subject matter, director Blomkamp drew heavily upon his childhood exposure to apartheid and the gross inequities it spawned to form the basis of District 9, his first feature film. "What I think is really great about the movie is that it very much reflects Neill's life experience," District 9 producer Peter Jackson remarked during a chat at last month's San Diego Comic-Con, where he made his first-ever appearance in part to help promote his young protégé’s ambitious debut. "He wanted to put that on film with an alien spin to it, because he's a sci-fi geek."
Gaming aficionados might recall that Blomkamp was originally slated to helm the ill-fated Halo movie. Indeed, he and producer Jackson conceived District 9 during Halo’s dying moments, when it became apparent that the big-budget adaptation of Bungie’s popular first-person shooter was doomed. Produced independently on a budget of $30 million, a downright paltry sum by today’s action-movie standards, District 9 looks as if it could have cost three times as much, thanks to the work of Jackson and his ingenious pals at the renowned WETA visual effects shop.
Freed from studio meddling and encouraged to take risks by Jackson, Blomkamp chose his close friend Sharlto Copley, a former visual effects technician with little acting experience, to play District 9’s lead role of Wikus Van De Merwe, a middle manager at Multi-National United (MNU), a government security contractor/weapons manufacturer. A well-meaning, hopelessly naive corporate drone reminiscent of The Office’s Michael Scott, Van De Merwe is charged with leading MNU’s forced migration of the aliens from their existing shantytown in District 9 to the concentration camp-like tent city of District 10.
Eager to please his superiors at MNU, Van De Merwe cheerfully goes about his business, a documentary crew accompanying him as he goes from shack to shack serving eviction notices to District 9’s befuddled residents. But when the chance exposure to an unknown alien substance begins to alter his DNA, initiating a Fly-like transformation process, he finds himself pushed into taking up the cause of his one-time adversaries.
District 9 isn’t for everyone, particularly fans of subtlety and restraint. Everything about the film is over-the-top, from its deliberately ham-fisted political allegories to its wildly gory climax. All of this might be a problem if Blomkamp didn’t clearly intend the film to function first and foremost as a satire. References to hot-button topics like racism and xenophobia are handled with tongue planted firmly in cheek, as are scenes involving strung-out aliens haggling desperately for a fix of cat food and human prostitutes trolling the ghetto for extraterrestrial customers. Avaricious businessmen, inept bureaucrats, abusive cops and feel-good political activists are all spoofed heartily — and violently.
"I kept saying to Neill, 'Enjoy this. Be as crazy as you can,'" recounted Jackson, who foresaw District 9 going up against traditional summer blockbuster fare like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. "There's no way in the world we can compete with that type of film on spectacle. So I said the one advantage that we have is that we can be grungy and dirty and rude and we can be violent ... that's what you can do that G.I. Joe can't."
District 9 opens August 11, 2009.