District 9 (Review)

Sci-fi thriller leans too heavily on '80s predecessors

It’s worth noting that co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp sets District 9’s pivotal event — the arrival of a derelict alien spacecraft over Johannesburg, South Africa, leaving more than a million extraterrestrial refugees — in the 1980s. Apparently, that’s when the filmmaker learned everything he needed to know about allegorical/satirical science fiction.

Blomkamp sets the bulk of the narrative 20 years after the aliens’ arrival. A heavily patrolled slum has sprung up around the hovering mother ship, and the creatures — given the derogatory nickname “Prawns” because of their arthropod-like appearance — have become the object of hostile native sentiment. Casually racist government bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) gets a promotion that means overseeing a mass relocation of the Prawns to a new ghetto farther away from the city. Unfortunately, a run-in with an alien liquid leaves Wikus facing a particularly ironic transformation and forces him to become friendlier with one of the Prawns than he ever thought possible.

Yes, South African cinema is attempting the metaphor route to purge its apartheid guilt, while also providing a convenient counterpart for Americans as we confront our feelings about unwanted immigrants. Blomkamp serves up clunky analogues for real problems of segregation and hopes you’re either sympathetic enough to the themes not to care or too wrapped up in the exploding bodies to notice.

What’s most disappointing about District 9, though, is how familiar it all is — provided you look back a generation. It’s refreshing that Blompkamp takes a fairly matter-of-fact approach to the aliens’ presence on earth, and he quickly dispenses with the familiar approach of hiding the look of his creatures as long as possible. But the alien-as-target-of-racism angle was covered by 1988’s Alien Nation; Wikus’ fate looks remarkably similar to that of Jeff Goldblum in 1986’s The Fly; and the grudging, mutual-need-driven bonding between human and alien hearkens back to Enemy Mine. Throw in nods to Aliens and RoboCop in other subplots, and you can see clearly that Blomkamp did his homework re-watching the best of that era. Grade: C

Opens Aug. 14. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and get theater details here.
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