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Movie Review: District 9 (R)

There Goes the Neighborhood
The gatekeepers of District 9 find out just how long it takes seafood to go bad.
By Jared Peterson

Every summer it’s the same: You wake up one morning to find a huge flying saucer looming ominously over some major city—parking brake engaged, hazards clicking, ticking everybody off. This time around the city is Johannesburg, South Africa, which is a nice change—let Bruce Willis or Will Smith (or, heaven help us, Shia LeBeouf) sleep in for once. Besides, the South African government has this covered; I’m sure they’ll have no trouble managing the peaceful coexistence of… Hold on, sorry… What’s that? Alien apartheid—really, already?

To be fair, it’s 28 years from “We come in peace” to “Could we at least have a porta-john for the block?” And, hey, these visitors were not exactly easy to deal with. I mean, they look different—large, gray-green creatures with tentacles on their hands and mouths. They speak in a strange, clicky language (that the humans, impressively, seem to have learned). And their broken-down ride is still sitting there. Most vexing, though, to the powers-that-be is that they won’t, or rather can’t, share their toys—fearsome-looking weapons that simply don’t work in human hands. Assimilation proves difficult—prejudice, some rioting, anger on both sides. Gradually, the visitors’ welcome wanes, and they are relegated to squalid slums with the barest of resources.

A new plan to “clean up” the townships is little more than forced relocation into concentration camps, carried out by Blackwater-style military contractors. A goofy, midlevel bureaucrat named Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tapped to oversee the “resettlement”. He accompanies the armed teams as they turn houses and cajole or intimidate families of so-called “prawns” (a derogatory term for the aliens, and the only one used, even officially). Wikus stumbles on a cache of alien technology that the government is eager to get a hold of, as it may hold the key to unlocking the power of their weapons. He soon becomes the target of human forces, and is forced underground among the very creatures he helped to persecute.

District 9 is directed by Neil Blomkamp, adapted and expanded from his six-minute short film, “Alive in Joburg”. The film has most of the elements of good science fiction. It injects a familiar setting with an element of fantasy that points out underlying forces and uncomfortable truths—in this case, the heavy-handed allegory of institutionalized prejudice evoked by what should remain fresh memories of racism and apartheid in South Africa. The movie also has a unique look—a gritty, dirty realism and a (literally) visceral view of the clash between alien and human. But a sci-fi film with aspirations to mass appeal and cultural permanency needs a strong central character to shore up its imaginative intricacies, and Wikus comes up a bit short in this regard. As a hapless patsy in a vast military-industrial conspiracy, he is still complicit in the reprehensible actions of his government and holds tightly to prevailing prejudices even as he becomes the victim of them. The distress and desperation he experiences are intense, but he doesn’t really seem to grow as a result of it. With the story framed as an after-the-fact, investigative documentary, Wikus, with his bumbling inexperience and attempts to look tough, felt like a character in some outlandish episode of “The Office”. In the end, his is more of a surface transformation than an internal one.

Okay, District 9 is bloody. And gooey. And squishy. One of the aliens’ enviable weapons turns out to be essentially a handheld bug zapper with a handy point-shoot-liquefy interface. Blomkamp revels in showing us a dozen or more soldiers reduced to a gooey spray of blood and viscera. (Like many horrifyingly violent things in the movies, this effect goes from shocking to unsettling to almost uncomfortably funny.) Besides being pureed, bodies are shot through with holes, thrown around like rag dolls, and relieved of their heads and limbs. We get good looks at the aliens’ squalid homes, which feature, among other things, gooey hatcheries for their eggs, nourished with juice distilled from raw cow parts. The aliens thrive on meat (who doesn’t?), though they also have a taste for cat food, which we see them clamor over and scarf down—Wikus takes a taste, too. There are close-ups of bloody human wounds and vivisected alien corpses. (The aliens bleed an almost-red substance that splatters and oozes just like our blood.) Let’s see—what else? Yanked-out fingernails, extruded teeth, alien vomiting and urination, skittering, spider-like alien pets. A steady stream of grossness.

The swearing is copious—overwhelmingly the f-word (which in the Afrikaans accent sounds a lot like the name of a common eating utensil). Director and actors, to their credit, manage to infuse the term “prawn” with all the hatred and ignorance of the racial slurs it’s meant to evoke. There are references to—and a couple of doctored photographs of—interspecies sexual activity.

No previews were available at this screening.

Jared Peterson last reviewed G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

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