In 1982, a massive star ship bearing a bedraggled alien population, nicknamed "The Prawns," appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty-eight years later, the initial welcome by the human population has faded. The refugee camp where the aliens were located has deteriorated into a militarized ghetto called District 9, where they are confined and exploited in squalor. In 2010, the munitions corporation, Multi-National United, is contracted to forcibly evict the population with operative Wikus van der Merwe in charge. In this operation, Wikus is exposed to a strange alien chemical and must rely on the help of his only two new 'Prawn' friends.
/ New Zealand
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
. Starring: Sharlto Copley
, Jason Cope
, Nathalie Boltt
, Sylvaine Strike
, Elizabeth Mkandawie
, John Sumner
, William Allen Young
, Greg Melvill-Smith
, Nick Blake
, Morena Busa Sesatsa
, Themba Nkosi
, Mzwandile Nqoba
, Barry Strydom
. Music by: Clinton Shorter
How odd to set a sci-fi horror movie in and around Johannesburg, South Africa. That's where a big fuzzy looking space ship has been hovering in the air for twenty years, we're told during the mocumentary footage at the outset of Neill Blomkamp's 'District 9' explaining how a gang of terminator-torso creatures would up here by accident, starving, and were settled in a compound on the edge of the city called District 9 that's become a hideous slum. District 9 is now a place despised by all South Africans, black and white. The unfortunate outer space refugees confined there, whose insect-reptilian look and proclivity for feeding on rubbish, bad meat, and cat food has led to their being called "prawns" by the general, are to be relocated to a tent camp 200 miles out by a wealthy independent contractor called MNU (Multi-National United).
By the time all this has been laid out for us, of course, it's obvious Johannesburg isn't so "odd" as a setting for the story at all, just heavy-handed. The location chosen by South African director Blomkamp is a blatant way of making this a sort of allegory about man's inhumanity to those he considers his inferiors, like the blacks in the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. The only trouble is, the film thus begins with a creakily obvious story device.
Another trouble with this unholy combination of bits from 'Black Hawk Down,' 'RoboCop,' 'Transformers,' 'Aliens,' 'The Fly,' etc., etc, is that it points to how aliens are being cruelly treated and then presents them as disgusting. Some pleasure comes out of how that disgust is milked, however, because the interiors of the "prawns'" shacks, a riot of technology and degraded junk, show the designers had a lot of fun with them, as they do with the exteriors of the shantytown, a kind of sci-fi Mogadishu (actually, in the Ridley Scott's film, recreated in the suburbs of Rabat, Morocco). Even when it descends into actioner schlock, District 9 does make ingenious use of its low budget and limited locations. And even if its characters are mostly clichés, the degenerating relationships in the protagonist's life are poignant enough.
'District 9' is a conversion story, because Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the goofy bureaucrat put in charge of the relocation, who's the son-in-law of MNU's owner, starts out with contempt for the aliens but ends up being, sort of, their ally. More than that. When invading the house of one of them, he spills some black fluid from a vial onto his face and starts sprouting a "prawn" claw where his left hand used to be. Then, the whites want to use him to kill aliens, because his new DNA allows him to fire alien weapons that are the only thing that can finish them off. And a Nigerian gangster, who preys off the aliens, stockpiling their special weaponry and extorting enormous sums from them for tinned cat food, wants to consume Wikus' arm because he thinks it will make him superhuman. Anyway, Wikus is forced to befriend the "prawn" whose shack contained the fluid, because he (or it) may be able to help him. And so he who was to have been the aliens' concentration camp director now becomes their protector.
But if the "prawns" are vulnerable only to their own weapons which only they can fire, it seems easy enough to hurt them in other ways. This movie just isn't very well thought out. There's no further back story for the aliens either. Where do they get money? What do they do all day? These things we never learn. Nor, unlike the flawed but superior 'Children of Men,' are local events put in the context of global ones.
Copley is (perhaps intentionally?) a wooden actor when he first appears being "filmed' at his desk as publicity for the eviction and relocation project. He livens up when he gets involved in the violent action in the "prawns'" ghetto. For a while, he seems a complex hero, morphing from doofus into bigot, then pariah, then cross-over, then selfless savior. But during this interesting progress the movie unfortunately descends just as rapidly from its allegorical sci-fi setup into more and more crude levels of B-picture action and horror.
And this crudity only reminds us of how clumsy the fake TV news, surveillance footage, documentary interviews with academics or technicians and other bits of hack "realism" have been, and highlights how crudely drawn the MNU operatives and Wikus' family members are. And how utterly derivative the aliens' body shapes are. And how inexplicable it is that the "prawns" speak in the usual sci-fi movie guttural backwards-tape alien language, which is subtitled for us, but the white men all understand it, and the aliens all understand English. By the time you get to the end of District 9, however intense its sometimes George Romero-worthy yuck scenes have been along the way, it has just become an utter, irredeemable mess. And that's too bad because there are some ingenious ideas buried here, and the first half lets you think instead of just watch people and critters bang into each other.
The final insult is to find that this movie is being heralded as "original" and "smart." Only mavericks like Armond White and Michael Sragow are unimpressed. (To liven things up, Ebert even supported White's right to pan this -- then withdrew his support.) Sragow points to the film's "derivative" quality. A black man himself, White points to how 'District 9' trivializes the South African liberation struggle, and is offensive to Nigerians. But viewers and critics see the movie they want to see, and since this one pushes the right liberal buttons and gives the superficial appearance of being an "original" sci-fi movie, it's making a big noise and doing good box office.
Review by Chris Knipp from the Internet Movie Database.