You have never seen anything like District 9 — or so went the early buzz for Neill Blomkamp's feature-length directorial debut. The concept is the stuff nerdgasms are made of: a vérité sci-fi thriller set in an alternate-reality South Africa where 2.5 million Cthulhu-faced bug aliens (referred to as "prawns," since the locals view them as bottom-feeding scavengers) crash-land into human society and a zillion boffo explosions ensue.
|District 9 | Directed by Neill Blomkamp | Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell | with Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Mandla Gaduka, and Kenneth Nkosi | Tristar | 112 minutes|
Much of the film works as a loose documentary as it hurtles through the exposition. In 1982, the extraterrestrials are stranded on Earth after their giant spaceship craps out over Johannesburg; in 2010, a ruthless government org and its nebbishy bureaucrat cog Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) attempt to roust the aliens from their unruly tin-roofed shantytown. During an investigation, Wikus accidentally sprays himself with a mysterious black "liquid" that mutates him and gives him the power to use the aliens' sophisticated bio-weaponry. Suddenly, both the government and the Nigerian warlords want a piece of him, and in order to stay alive, he has to buddy up with the same aliens he's oppressed.
This film might have felt groundbreaking if Blomkamp hadn't already started to tell the story (and done a better job of it) with "Alive in Joburg." That 2005 short served as a trailer to an imaginary documentary that also describes the plight of a race of aliens who are marooned in Johannesburg and find themselves the new underclass as they struggle to survive in a Soweto ghetto and freak the locals out. Action intercuts with candid-feeling interview segments: we take a ride in a cop car with a bemused dude who talks about how his children cry at night over the eerie alien lights in the sky and how unnerving it is to watch these strange immigrants hitch rides on top of moving trains. With its deft apartheid metaphor and thrilling realism, this tantalizing micro-universe had me hooked from the first shot. I've been waiting four years to see Blomkamp make the full-length version.
But District 9 is not that film. Although it's only six minutes long, "Alive in Joburg" has a depth that's lacking in District 9, which bounds from one contrivance to the next. The black liquid is an all-purpose substance that both unzips DNA and powers spaceships; Wikus is the beneficiary of at least one deus ex machina rescue; after 20 years of foraging for black liquid, the aliens finally find enough to fly home . . . on the same day that the government launches its evacuation. And on and on.
Sci-fi blog Io9 has District 9 producer Peter Jackson saying that the film reminded him of his early days in low-budget "splatstick." But Jackson knew how to have fun with such grody romps as Dead Alive and Bad Taste. District 9 comes off as far too self-serious.
It's fitting that, in its final moments, the film offers a hazy vista of Johannesburg in which the two most prominent landmarks piercing the skyline are the alien ship and Ponte Tower, an enormous luxury high-rise apartment complex and the largest residential building in Africa. In the post-apartheid '90s, violent gangs moved in, and the majestic skyscraper became a crime-ridden tube with four stories' worth of debris piled up in its core. Like Ponte, "Alive in Joburg" held out a lofty promise that District 9 fails to deliver on: its soaring achievement is still wrapped around a heap of trash.