Review: District 9's aliens give sci-fi a social conscience

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Given the thoughtless action epics that populated theaters this summer, it should come as little shock that District 9, an alien occupation story with actual ideas and racial overtones, drew gobsmacked reactions from critics and audiences alike, even before it was properly released.

At the same time, it's also this sense of unlikely triumph that obscures some of the film's shallowness, if not outright shortcomings; but because Neill Blomkamp's emphasis is on humanistic rather than cultural relevance, the writer-director's feature debut is a genuine triumph nonetheless.

The film stars newcomer Sharlto Copley as Wikus, a corporate-owned social worker in South Africa who is enlisted by his boss—and, not coincidentally, his father-in-law—to help relocate a population of alien beings called "prawns" who descended to Earth after their ship ground to a menacing but seemingly inert halt over downtown Johannesburg. Facing a thankless, confrontational job with indefatigable cheer, if also naïve optimism, Wikus eagerly explores the creatures' shanties, only to accidentally be sprayed with a mysterious fluid from an alien device.

But when he begins to partially transform into one of the prawns, Wikus finds himself a pawn in the corporation's plan to harness the power of the alien technology, and soon he forges a tenuous pact with Chris, a prawn who offers to return him to normal in exchange for help returning to the ship.

For a first-time filmmaker, District 9 is a real achievement: Seeded with great, profound ideas, Blomkamp's story works as a conventional piece of entertainment and social commentary simultaneously, and effectively. But its obviousness—and its occasional superficiality—undermines a sense of deeper cultural resonance, even if it teaches lessons that are important and quite frankly more relevant than ever. Thankfully, however, Blomkamp's emphasis is not on deconstructing race relations, but in telling a meaningful story, and he finds many if not most of the right details that bring its emotional core to life.

Shot documentary-style, which gives the material palpable real-world weight, not to mention a certain kind of geographic authenticity, there's an interesting irony to many of the contrasts struck between the South Africans' solidarity as a species against the prawns; black and white citizens alike express their contempt for the creatures, who are described as little more than unthinking drones. (Because it's unclear how far Blomkamp intends to take his metaphor, it's hard to know where his representations of actual black Africans end and the fantasy-other of the prawns begins, although suffice it to say this transparency on the story's surface suggests any deeper connections are likely unintentional.) But the relationship between Wikus and Chris, the one prawn who seems to be capable of cogent thought, is remarkably sensitive and powerful, and it mostly compensates for (if not excuses) some of his conceptual inconsistencies.

For example, Wikus is perhaps best defined as a liberal racist, the kind of person who claims a sense of altruism and benevolence but whose beliefs are mired in ignorance and condescension, however well-meaning are his intentions. But the intellectual and emotional awakening that Wikus endures is profoundly painful for him, sometimes even self-destructive, and he makes progress in half-measures that sometimes backfire but almost always prove relatable or at least recognizable.

Further, there's a key moment in the film when Wikus accidentally interrupts an intimate conversation between Chris and his son, and tenderly knocks on the door frame to acknowledge it; that Blomkamp uses an otherwise insignificant gesture to signify Wikus' evolving respect for these alien creatures serves as a testament to his abilities as a storyteller, and his attention to the universal but oft-overlooked details that define human connection—even if one of the people connecting isn't one.

Of course, with such weighty issues at the forefront of the story, much less this review, one might be tempted to assume that the film is all polemic and no propulsion. But Blomkamp doesn't skimp on the set pieces, and he crafts a truly exciting thriller whose deeper resonance exists there but doesn't distract you: Wikus becomes an unlikely action hero in the service of saving his own life, infiltrates a fortified military compound and at one point dons a metal suit resembling a hollowed-out Robocop ED-209 to battle the military men who wish to turn him into a lab rat just like the poor prawns before him. Like Children of Men, its nearest tonal predecessor, it operates on a hard-science level of authenticity, and while one might be hard pressed to simply call it an action film, there's plenty of it in there to make sure that you're entertained even as you contemplate its other, less visceral elements.

Ultimately, Blomkamp's debut doesn't quite sustain (much less support) the weight of the concepts that reside on its surface, but he does such a good job making sure that what's underneath them works that it's almost impossible not to be charged up afterward. So while the fact that it has ideas at all may indeed be suitable cause for celebration, what's really exciting is that they show real promise and suggest the arrival of a formidable new filmmaking talent.

Be it as a breakneck action-filled thriller or a thought-provoking cultural critique, District 9 truly is one of the best movies of the summer, because it reminds audiences that physical and intellectual stimulus need not be mutually exclusive when it comes to potential blockbusters—especially when there's something emotional there to tie the two together.