Review in a Hurry: Gamer hearts were broken when Rings lord Peter Jackson and his South African protégé Neill Blomkamp failed to mount a big-budget Halo movie. But it was all for the good, as they quickly moved on to this powerful, striking bit of smaller-scale sci-fi about alien bugs cordoned off into South African ghettos.
The Bigger Picture: Adapted from the director's short Alive in Joburg, District 9 depicts a near future in which aliens have arrived but appear dazed, aimless and unable to get their spaceship back home (it is strongly implied that they're antlike worker drones who've been separated from their colony leaders).
Dubbed "prawns" due to their perceived resemblance to bottom-feeding crustaceans, the newcomers look like giant, scary crickets and croak like that freaky ghost woman from The Grudge, so they're rather swiftly segregated into their own shantytown, the titular District 9. But even that proves too close to home for the paranoid citizens of Johannesburg, and as the movie begins, a plan to relocate the aliens yet again, this time to a more remote tent city, is set into motion.
Give any filmmaker $30 million to make their first feature with Peter Jackson as the producer, and chances are they won't do too bad a job. However, Blomkamp delivers way more than merely "not bad." Shooting in South Africa and utilizing the digital animation skills he's been learning since childhood, the director has created a memorable work that's likely to stand alongside the sci-fi classics.
He has also made something that looks a lot more expensive than it actually was, in part by using no-name actors; the lead here is Blomkamp's childhood friend Sharlto Copley, a newcomer to the big screen who won't be unknown for long.
Copley plays Wikus van der Merwe, a dorky bureaucrat who's in charge of serving eviction notices to the aliens, a profession made doubly dangerous by the fact that there's a brisk trade in illegal alien weaponry between the prawns and Nigerian voodoo gangs. When he accidentally comes into contact with some strange fluid, Wikus begins to mutate, his DNA gradually changing to that of an alien. The government swiftly becomes interested...since all the alien weapons are DNA-activated and no human has ever been able to use one until now.
Betrayed by his own side, Wikus makes an uneasy deal with an alien named Christopher Johnson (motion-capture performance by Jason Cope, who also did most of the other aliens) to steal back the rest of the dangerous fluid in exchange for a cure.
During the course of things, Wikus must go from totally pathetic nebbish to full-on hero, a challenging arc made even more challenging by the fact that there was no scripted dialogue in the film and Copley had to improvise it all. That he makes it look so effortless bodes well for his acting future.
Jackson's influence can be seen in some of the played-for-laughs carnage that ensues, but Blomkamp's vision is his own, and this auspicious debut will undoubtedly make a few studio executives regret killing Halo.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Having "tribal" vocals on the soundtrack every time something sad happens onscreen is a rotten cliché, and one we hope Blomkamp shakes off in whatever he does next.
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