Jailed in Jo'burg
For months before its release, District 9 was touted as the savior of summer 2009. Some people claimed the film would deliver us from the season's disappointing blockbusters and bring intelligence to its line-up of pyrotechnics. Is District 9 the sci-fi epic of messianic proportions it's been made out to be? Not really. Still, rumor of its quality when compared to the likes of G.I. Joe and Transformers isn't unfounded. True, District 9 boasts an effective look and some snazzy effects trickery. Its real strength, however, lies in how the story is supported by its underlying themes, conveyed in such a way that you'll hardly notice you're being educated.
In District 9, science fiction became reality during the early 1980s when man first made contact with life from another world. But this close encounter was hardly a joyous one, for the visitors found cramped in the ship that came to hover over Johannesburg quickly became refugees on terra firma. Once embraced by the world, the "prawns" (nicknamed for their crustaceous forms) are treated as outcasts, abandoned and ripe for exploitation by those who would do wrong by them. It's the job of pencil-pusher Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to oust the prawns from their current digs, though he's deterred when exposed to their alien technology. Finding himself hunted by his own colleagues, Wikus teams up with those he once shunned, in an effort to save not only himself but the prawn population itself from further danger.
I'm reluctant to mention that District 9 has something thematic up its sleeve, for fear of sending filmgoers the wrong signal. Box office results lead me to believe the movies are no place for education (case in point: Frost/Nixon), but director Neill Blomkamp and crew have taken an approach that's sneaky yet not entirely under the radar. Anyone even slightly aware of world affairs will realize the plight of the prawns represents the lower class in third world nations. Regarded as subhumans in every sense of the word, the aliens eke out lives in squalid slums, have next to no personal freedoms, and pay exorbitant prices for junk food (in this case, cat food). Yet despite the temptation to preach, Blomkamp never does so.
In fact, my major complaint about District 9 is that it doesn't stick to its dramatic guns enough. The second act hardly kicks in before Blomkamp ramps up the run-and-gun theatrics. Their inclusion seems a little hasty and tends to clutter up the works near the end (especially when the notorious Mr. Shaky-Cam puts in a few appearances), but they're presented well as a whole. Much has been made of how District 9 cost a mere $30 million (chump change by Hollywood standards), but every penny is right there to be seen. The effects do their job quite effectively, which is to say they make you wonder exactly how they were pulled off. The action sequences are often tense and pull no punches; expect to see more bursting bodies than you've ever absorbed in one sitting. I also appreciate how Wikus is a flawed hero, one who doesn't demand to be liked and whose redemption comes with a great sacrifice.
Films designated as "classics" achieve that classification after some time has passed, so a decade or two down the road, I can see District 9 joining their ranks. At the moment, pacing issues and some instances of repetition prevent me from completely singing its praises. But District 9 proves that conveying social issues can be entertaining and that you don't need to spend the gross national product of Finland to show people a good time.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Sony Pictures Entertainment and rated "R" for bloody violence and pervasive language.)