District 9 is a revival of the good old days of R rated 80s and early 90s sci-fi action films. This is a great movie, showing true originality, and delivering on its entertainment mandate. District 9 avoids the pitfalls that rob many sci-fi flicks of their potential, including the poisonous PG-13 rating, the ubiquitous bad computer graphics, and the standard crappy actors. District 9 says “NO” to all of these mandates of modern movies, and gives people what they really want; technology, gore, and action. Neill Blomkamp is a Paul Verhoeven for our times, a man with his finger on the pulse of the audience.
The movie introduces us to an alternate universe in VHS filtered views of an alien ship landing in Johannesburg, South Africa in the early 80s to set up the proceedings. Fakumentary footage with local residents offers an unfortunate thematic concern that is luckily dropped after the first act of the film, and is its weakest point. Blomkamp is a South African native, so maybe he has a special insight into the zeitgeist of the continent. Still, the film’s comparison of blacks to the aliens (given the ethnic slur ‘Prawns’) is painfully obvious. This comparison is hastily masked by making the local black population the oppressive racist majority to the unwelcome alien refugees. Still, through the media filter of the introduction, Prawns (read: black people) are portrayed as violent untrustworthy thieves. The condemnation of the real world analogy of Apartheid is seriously subdued by the portrayal of the alien minority stand-in as somewhat noble savages.
Not that the actual blacks in the film get much better treatment than the Prawns themselves. Nigerians move in to scam the aliens out of their weaponry for cat food, set up intergalactic prostitution, and practice scary voodoo. No amount of good guy black soldiers can cover up these stereotypes. In fact, the film’s social concern is self defeating by denying these stereotypes in principle, while strongly reinforcing them on screen. But this racial wrangling only sticks around for a while before the real action begins, so don’t worry. The story is built around Multi-National United (MNU), a private military company, evicting the aliens from their shanty town to a tent city outside of Johannesburg. The film follows corporate doofus (read: Michael Scott) Wikus van der Merwe getting the Prawns to sign their eviction notices, backed up by a squad of mercenaries.
Minor spoilers lie ahead. The comedy of Merwe trying to deal with the recalcitrant Prawns is spot on, though the humans seem a bit unsurprised when a soldier gets his arm torn off. Classic dialogue like, “get your fookin’ tentacle out of my face,” peppers the journey through the shanty town. Merwe threatening an alien with child protective services, and jauntily performing an ‘abortion’ on some alien eggs with flamethrowers set the prevailing mood really well. Things go wrong though, and Merwe finds himself on the run from MNU after a biological exposure. The film gets the gore down in Merwe’s painful illness, with cues from The Tommyknockers and The Fly.
The story turns into a buddy cop film of sorts, except Merwe isn’t a cop, and his partner is an alien. Still, this works as well as anything from Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours. The story is serviceable, but the real heart lies in the action. The combat and weaponry is so good. Human weapons are truly state of the art. Modern MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protection) vehicles are used, a wide assortment of unique firearms are on display (including a rare South African .50 sniper rifle), and the body armor is futuristic but weathered. The alien weaponry steals the show, with new levels of destruction and mayhem captured in crisp celluloid. The near constant firefight that takes up the last half of the movie is one for the record books. The computer effects are top notch, bent toward gritty realism. Why can’t all movies have this kind of CGI craftsmanship?
In the end, the alien mech that Merwe uses to take on the mercenaries is a true step forward. This is ED-209 for 2009. Indeed, the aesthetic is closest to Robocop, but turned up quite a few notches. MNU is a ruthless corporation on par with OCP, but the use of mercenaries (just like Blackwater (now named Xe) in Iraq) is a sign of our times. Anyway, what other movie shows the pain of watching your freshly dismembered arm being crushed under a mechanical foot? The violence is grade A, this movie delivers the blood without hesitation or remorse, the way it should be! As much as I’d like to give a play by play of the incredible new weapons the aliens use, I just can’t bring myself to spoil the surprise.
Neill Blomkamp, with an obvious creature effects assist from Peter Jackson, has achieved something great. It is a damn shame he didn’t get a chance to helm the Halo movie, because he knows how to film alien vs. human chaos. Maybe Spielberg pushing Halo forward, in conjunction with this movie’s nearly assured box office success, will give him the chance. He has three Halo short films called Landfall; check them out if you can. I’ve gotten so used to seeing detestable shit at the movies that when something good comes out, it seems unreal. Go see this movie. It’s a reminder of better movie times.