District 9 – Review

Worth seeing: for fans of smart sci-fi with a subversive sociological undertone
Director:Neill Blomkamp
Featuring:Sharlto Copley, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Vanessa Haywood
Length:112 minutes
Certificate:15
Country:New Zealand, South Africa, US
Released:4th September 2009

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Twenty years ago, an alien mother ship arrived over Johannesburg and – to quote Douglas Adams – hung in the air in exactly the same way that bricks don’t.
After a period of inactivity, the South African authorities sent helicopters up to explore and found more than a million lizard-like humanoid aliens, dying of starvation.
The visitors were brought down to earth and housed in a huge shanty-town on the edge of Johannesburg, called District 9.
But in the years that have followed, District 9 has become a haven for criminal gangs and violence and a drain on the resources of its human neighbours.
It’s time to do something about it, so the government assigns the bureaucratic agency, Multi-National United, to work alongside the army, moving the one-point-eight million residents of District 9 to a new, more secure, refugee camp, further from the city.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Beginning as a mockumentary and evolving seamlessly into a taut thriller, this is one of the outstanding films of the year – from the point of view of its ambition, originality, excitement and satirical bite.
As a piece of straight-up storytelling, it has some failings – even within its own universe, the plot can be a little incoherent, inconsistent or convenient and the initial mockumentary element introduces us to dozens of characters we never actually meet again, turning the opening of the film into almost an expositional prologue rather than a traditional first act.
But such quibbles are forgivable when a film delivers on so many other levels.
Financed by Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson, after he saw the short film it was based on, one of the most striking elements is an examination of the way a society tackles immigrants – and when the society in question is a post-apartheid South Africa, it makes the attitude of Johannesburg’s black residents towards the “prawns” – as they casually refer to them – feel all the more ironic and hypocritical.
An assault on patronising bureaucracy, a side-swipe at the gung-ho military and a critique of the influence of the arms-race on politics also feed into what – at its heart – is a story of one man (an impressive Sharlto Copley), thrown in – out of his depth – to an adventure which unravels beyond his capability – and when he realises that the conformity he’s come to take for granted might not be the right path after all.
But can he find anyone else – human – who agrees with him?
One of the great strengths of this film is that despite the inherent barbarism of the aliens, it’s the humans who come across as being less sympathetic.
From the visionary writer-director to the remarkable unknown cast, everyone involved should be proud of what they have achieved with a budget that’s low by modern standards.
Perhaps their biggest failure is leaving open the possibility of a sequel – District 10.
Job done, guys. Send ET home – or indeed let him stay in blissful harmony – but move on.