Friday, 11 September 2009

District 9

Sometimes, aborted movies can bear surprising fruit. Take director Neil Blomkamp's new sci-fi thriller District 9, a terrific piece of entertainment that likely would never have got off the ground had his intended project, an adaptation of the videogame Halo, taken shape. Instead, producer Peter Jackson handed him a $30 million meal ticket to make whatever project he wanted.

Blomkamp decided to enlarge his striking short film Alive in Joburg, a mockumentary about the tensions between Johannesberg-slum based aliens and humans. It's not exactly subtle but it's a witty, edgy concept, a nifty allegory that, with more money pumped into its feature length twin, becomes that intelligent yet slightly tongue in cheek blockbuster the summer has been crying out for.

After some preliminary mocko footage, re-establishing the set-up of Alive..., we are introduced to ineffectual Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, excellent), desk jockey with corportation Multi National United. Wikus' task, as recorded by the film crew, is to round up and serve eviction notices to the million or so 'Prawns' living in the District 9 slum. Already it is clear that Blomkamp is having tremendous fun painting his ideas on a larger scale, with Wikus acting as a crucial point of focus for the audience and much subversive humour being mined out of the interstellar language barriers between the aliens and their oppressors.

Dare one say... apartheid? True it's as understated as a brick through a window but Blomkamp's straight faced (and semi-autobiographical) playing of events helps steer the film through murkier waters when it carefully dispenses with the doco format and mutates into a more generic sci-fi thriller. Heck, it's terrific to finally again have a sci-fi movie with a humane message.

Soon Wikus has been exposed to a particularly nasty brand of ET-Flu, engineered by hero Prawn Christopher who requires the substance for his own ends. With Wikus rapidly transforming into a human-alien hybrid (cue some David Cronenberg-style body horror - Blomkamp wears his influences gleefully), he is hunted by his former employers, and must return to District 9 to form an uneasy alliance that may save his life...

What the director does so brilliantly is take the story in new directions without ever misleading the audience. After all the concept is inherently daft...but the documentary framework very cleverly lends it a sense of being realistic, so it's a smooth progression when the political message is used to power the more conventional good vs evil conflict. And that message is never lost sight of, be it the chief antagonist labelling the increasingly alien Wikus a 'half breed' or the sinister exploitation of the Prawns by the black magic practicing human inhabitants of District 9. If it does threaten to evolve into Transformers, fear not: this has too much of a brain...and, in the closing stages, real heart too.

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