This stunning mindbender of a movie attempts to prove that science fiction can handle the heftiest allegorical payloads, even the appalling shame of apartheid. District 9 coats the poison pill of intolerance in a hard techno shell, with the squalid ramshackle townships of Johannesburg now being populated by a race of garbage-munching insectoid refugees from another galaxy, dubbed "prawns" for their weird shrimp-like looks.
For 28 years, a massive, derelict mothership has hovered over the city, abandoned by its operators but swarming with disorganized and unmotivated drones, now herded into District 9, a sprawling ghetto that's heavily monitored by government agents and the mercenary army of a shady corporation called Multi National United (MNU). This semi-outlaw zone sports a booming black market, weapons trading, tech, prostitution and the dodgy cat food that the prawns are hooked on like crack, greedily sucking it down, cans and all.
Jovial, dorky middle manger Wikus Van Der Mere (Copley) must forcibly evict the grouchy visitors to a settlement many miles out of town, far from the angry mobs of humans who've run out of hospitality. Wikus is a gung ho company man, eager to please his father-in-law and other MNU top brass, cheerfully oblivious to their true motives. The real agenda involves the powerful alien weaponry, which is somehow linked to their genes and seems to only work for them. However, the plan is seriously fouled when Wikus gets exposed to a strange fluid and morphs into a human-alien hybrid, making him a fugitive and forcing him to team up with a clever prawn scientist — with the immigrant name of Christopher Johnson — as they battle for survival against heavily armed goons.
The imagery is so impressive, the technique so precise, that it's easy to get lost in the dizzy spin of the movie's first half, before the shock wears off and the more conventional buddy-cop action dynamics underneath peek through the cracks. Oddly, the movie becomes less interesting while it becomes more exciting, with the allegory playing second fiddle to special effects.
It may become Lethal Weapon with ray guns, but it's still a hell of an action film; said guns explode people into a red mist, making for lots of splattered gore and a high body count. None of it would matter if the characters weren't so consistently interesting: Wikus is a kind soul, unaware of his own patronizing colonial attitudes until it's too late, and the alien Johnson isn't so much a peacemaker as a sort of interstellar Marcus Garvey, who only wants to take his people back home.
First-time director Neill Blomkamp works wonders with a small budget, stealing the style of executive producer Peter Jackson's early work, mixing humor and icky gore. Maybe Blomkamp's best magic trick is concealing the myriad influences that he's recycled into a rich, heady broth, with everything from Alien Nation, V, Independence Day, The Office and dozens more. His gift for imagery also helps patch giant plot craters, and there's no way to digest all the elements, but, hey — who cares when the movie is this good?
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.