“District 9,” which hits theaters on Friday, strikes cinematic pay dirt by taking the standard science-fiction chestnut of “mankind’s first contact with aliens” and turning it on its ear. Rising from the ashes of the proposed movie adaptation of the “Halo” video game, “D-9” director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp manages to pull off a significant feat. He actually delivers on the hype built up by a over a year’s worth of viral marketing and the patronage of producer Peter Jackson.
The film tells the tale of an alien ship that comes to rest in the sky above Johannesburg, South Africa. Unlike most alien visitors, the derisively named “Prauns,” haven’t come to Earth to take over the planet, steal our resources or even usher us into a golden age of technological advancement. The Prauns mostly just want to go home. Unfortunately, their ship is inoperable due to missing parts and the million-plus inhabitants are stranded on Earth. Now the planet is stuck with the problem of what to do with a huge population of extraterrestrial refugees that no one really wants. To top it off, their alien devices won’t function in human hands, so we don’t even get fancy ray-guns out of the deal.
The first portion of the film is shot in a pseudo-documentary style explaining the creation and history of District 9, a shantytown built to house and segregate the Prauns in Johannesburg. This introduction shows the disdain and thinly-veiled contempt most human hold for the aliens. Due to rising tensions between humans and aliens, Multi-National United, the company tasked with running and maintaining order in District 9, decides to move the Prauns to another encampment, far removed from humans.
In charge of the relocation program is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a somewhat hapless MNU employee. Like most huge corporations in movies, MNU has a hidden and sinister agenda. Due to a mishap during the Praun eviction process, Wikus finds himself on the run from his employers and the police. Ditching the documentary style and shifting into action movie mode, we follow along as he is forced to hide out in District 9 and begins to forge a bond with the aliens who live there. As the movie picks up speed, he searches for a way to save himself and the residents of the titular zone from the clutches of MNU.
After a summer chock-full of disappointing movies, (Wolverine, Transformers, Terminator and G.I Joe, I’m looking at you) it’s nice to see that there are still a few quality science-fiction gems out there. Blomkamp weaves an all-too-plausible tale of mankind’s xenophobic reactions when confronted with the unknown. It’s a film that manages to have something intelligent to say even while keeping the explosion junkies (of whom, I count myself a card-carrying member) satisfied. The slick visual effects are a constant highlight. In fact, there’s a segment with a futuristic robot that shames anything done in the recent Transformers sequel. It’s probably too much to ask to hope that Michael Bay will take a lesson on how to do sci-fi with a soul.