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Sharlto Copley, Mandla Gaduka and Kenneth Nkosi are shown in a scene from the sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9.

Courtesy of TriStar Pictures/© 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

2 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

District 9

  • Directed by Neill Blomkamp
  • Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
  • Starring Sharlto Copley and Vanessa Haywood
  • Classification: 14A

Typically, when intergalactic aliens pay a house call on Earth, they come either with evil intentions or innocent eyes. The first makes for hot action, and we're the good guys fighting battles royal against the dastardly intruders. The second leads to cold satire, and we're the wicked guys getting a lecture on our immoral tendencies and primitive ways. So give District 9 some sci-fi credit: Right off, it avoids these well-travelled roads to blaze a trail both different and compelling. But then the trail disappears, leaving us with a yes-and-no movie. Yes, the premise is delightful; no, the delight doesn't last.

The setting is Johannesburg where, 20 years ago, the mother ship arrived bearing its unearthly cargo, a species technologically advanced but physically inferior and, apparently, prone to massive screw-ups. Like the one that left them separated from their ride home and at the mercy of their increasingly disgruntled hosts. In the decades since, the abandoned ship has deteriorated from flying saucer to hovering cloud, permanently hung over the city like a grey lament. Meanwhile, the aliens themselves have become, well, aliens, illegal refugees ghettoized in a Soweto-like township of corrugated shacks and abject poverty.

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Sure, this being South Africa, the allegorical intentions are painfully obvious. But director Neill Blomkamp keeps both the allegory and the pain in close check - he never hits us over the head with it. Rather, his hand-held camera buzzes around the predicament like a keen videographer on a freelance assignment. En route, we get to glimpse the aliens who, oozing slime and sporting tentacles, look like oversized crustaceans begging for the boiling pot. Evolved to the point of walking on two claws, they are upright in stance if nothing else. Or so say the locals who, black and white alike, dismiss the filthy "prawns" as a shiftless horde prone to overbreeding and addictive habits. Seems their abused substance of choice is cat food - starving, they go wild for the stuff.

These establishing scenes are intriguing, and the familiar racial profiling - unconventional beings subjected to conventional stereotypes - demands to be examined. After all, the prawns appear to have a social structure, children and families; they even speak a guttural language that's conveniently subtitled. So the script promises to enter their camp and explore their oppression - to humanize the aliens. Instead, unwisely, it does just the reverse, choosing to "alienate" a human.

That would be Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the none-too-bright bureaucrat who begins as the villain of the piece, the civil servant charged with the task of evicting the prawns, all 1.8 million of them, from their current ghetto to an even more outlying district far removed from the offended citizenry. A breezy mix of pomp and prejudice, Wikus tackles the mass eviction with a happy zeal, at least until he accidentally ingests a canister full of alien "fluid." Cue the metamorphosis - suddenly, the guy is losing his teeth and gaining tentacles. Just as suddenly, what began as a nifty premise morphs into a cluttered scenario chockablock with the usual riff-raff. Oh, there's a ruthless mercenary and a savage warlord and the inevitable cold-hearted corporation, this time intent on unlocking the DNA secret to the aliens' bio-weaponry and, you know, ruling the world.

Amid this growing mess, poor Wikus continues his journey from earthling to alien, hunter to hunted, supercilious villain to sympathetic victim, even as his newly sprouted claw carries a torch for his beloved wife, Tania (Vanessa Haywood). Speaking of clutter and love, our transforming hero receives a helpful assist from a father prawn devoted to his young son - clearly, just like us, those jumbo shrimps adore their juniors. I'd like to have gotten to know them better but, by then, the picture is bursting with battles royal - with bullets buzzing, flames bursting, blood flowing, crustaceans crackling. The fresh premise over, the stale action returns. Having exhausted its blazed trail, District 9 simply steers back to the rutted road of excess.

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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