Neill Blomkamp’s surprising smash hit, District 9, was perhaps one of the most original films of 2009. It was also one of the best.
Twenty years ago, an alien spaceship broke down over Johannesburg, South Africa. The surviving aliens were segregated into a shanty town that has since become a slum. Civil unrest boils over as the human residents of Johannesburg, tired of the alien presence, ironically demand that the foreigners be moved. Enter Multi-National United, a business conglomerate that agrees to spearhead the massive relocation effort. Ostensibly humanitarian, the MNU secretly plots to commandeer the aliens’ powerful weapons cache.
Sharlto Copley gives a shockingly underrated performance as Wikus Van Der Merwe, the timid MNU lackey hand-picked to lead the eviction process. After an unfortunate accident leaves Wikus a global fugitive, he seeks shelter in District 9, and enlists the help of an alien who has been working on his own secret operation: a vast underground machine that might help his race to finally return to their mothership.
All of this must have sounded like over-the-top camp on paper. But Blomkamp does something unique here: he switches between a standard narrative structure, as Wikus fights to save himself and the aliens, and a documentary style, complete with expert interviews and security camera footage. The verite tone and unmistakable connection to Apartheid elevate the film from a simple sci-fi action thriller to something deeply realistic, even compassionate. Copley creates a surprising amount of sympathy for Wikus’ plight, particularly during the moments when he begs his wife on the phone not to give up on him. And the relationship between an alien and his son is genuinely touching. The special effects here are genuine, and some of the best I’ve ever seen, seamlessly blending the CGI aliens into the desolate background of the shanty town.
I’ll be fair and warn you: District 9 absolutely deserves its R rating, as the second half of the film spirals into an all-out assault between humans and aliens. Bodies explode, blood splatters. This is a violent movie, certainly not intended for kids.
On a side note: I hear Blomkamp is working on a sequel to District 9. While I’m curious to see where he might take the story, I can’t imagine that it would be nearly as compelling as this film, which is wholly original. We’ll see.