If you're looking for the late-summer special-effects action fantasy with big franchise potential, forget about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. (You already forgot? Fine.) Instead, proceed directly to District 9, a grimy little scare-fi thriller from South Africa, hitherto unknown as a production center for really cool movies. The picture bears the imprimatur of another gifted outsider, Peter Jackson, who with The Lord of the Rings made New Zealand his own little Hollywood. But the real star is director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp, 29, who proves with his first feature that no genre is so tarnished by overuse and misuse that it can't be revived by a smart kid with fresh ideas.
Blomkamp pours his clever notions into a familiar mold: a story of extraterrestrials who come to Earth and are treated like outlaws. Sound schizophrenic? Not to Blomkamp, who grew up in South Africa (before moving to Vancouver at 18 to work in special effects) and who knew from boyhood that he wanted to be a filmmaker. "On one side of my mind you have this place with a crazy racial background, and on the other side of my brain you have this science-fiction geek," he says. "And then one day the two just mixed, and I decided I wanted to do science fiction in South Africa."
A giant spaceship hovers over a world capital, just as in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Only this time it's Johannesburg, not Washington. And the beings that emerge aren't elegant, superior dudes like Michael Rennie and Keanu Reeves; they're large, icky insect types, with wriggling worms where their noses might be. Nor do they issue the lofty proclamation that the peoples of the world must resolve to live in peace (or we'll all be killed). Instead, these space things, more than a million of them, hang around for 20 years in a ratty part of Joburg called District 9 while their vehicle awaits the spare parts it needs to make the trip home.
By now, most earthlings are less afraid than annoyed; they see the illegal aliens as just another class of lowlife troublemakers. Because they also look like creepy crustaceans, they are slapped with the derisive term prawns. They possess weapons no human can fire, but a gang of Nigerian thugs buys up most of the stash anyway, while supplying the creatures with women who'll engage in interspecies prostitution. When local resentment reaches its boiling point, a private firm gets a government contract to cattle-herd the furriners to a new settlement, far from the city. To enforce this transgalactic apartheid, the head of the company calls on his naive, underachieving but very game son-in-law Wikus (Sharlto Copley).
It's a dirty job, and it gets dirtier when Wikus is infected with some alien gookum and his left arm turns creature-like. Now he's hunted by both his old firm and the Nigerians who want his prawn arm to fire the space weapons. Classic Hitchcock vectors: a man on the run from two adversaries. In '60s TV-series terms, he's the fugitive and the one-armed man. Out of options, he must find help from the species he and his kind have subjugated and slaughtered. In this monster movie, the monster is us.
Evicted and imprisoned, deprived of their rights, the aliens could be the Palestinians in Gaza, the detainees in Guantánamo or, transparently, black South Africans for the 46 years of apartheid and, in effect, for centuries before. (The title is a play on District Six, a vibrant mixed-race area of Cape Town that was declared whites-only in 1966, after which 60,000 of its residents were forcibly removed.) In his 2005 rough draft for District 9, the short film Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp didn't foreground the political elements. But while writing the feature script with Terri Tatchell, he became aware "that all these very serious topics about racism and xenophobia and segregation would start to shine through the science-fiction-esque veneer," he says. "I had to be very careful that I didn't get too close to these serious topics with a film that's mostly a summer thrill ride." He told himself, "It's your first film. Use it as satire. Chill out."
The seriousness is apparent yet not obtrusive. Whites seem to run the country, the corporations and the media, much as they did under apartheid, but that will hardly register with international audiences conditioned to see a parade of Caucasians in action movies. What is more likely to grab viewers is the dynamic storytelling (partly in mockumentary form), the gruesome yet sympathetic aliens, the robot suit that briefly turns Wikus into Iron Man, and the surfeit of body parts exploding. Like David Cronenberg especially in his masterpiece, The Fly Blomkamp is fascinated by the ways our bodies morph, decay and betray us. And like Jackson's early, grotty films (Bad Taste, Braindead the titles say it all), District 9 revels in its mixture of horror and loopy humor and in the propensity for odd-looking creatures to suddenly go splat!
Even more impressive is the way this feature-film novice director sells his vision of Johannesburg as a dusty sump hole, a place of sapping heat and blinding glare. The creatures aren't caressed with the moody lighting of most monster films; by sticking them out in the sun, Blomkamp demystifies them and shows off their CGI sophistication. (Virtually all the aliens were created digitally; he used very few puppets.) "I wanted the image to feel incredibly raw and unmanipulated," he says, "almost like it came straight from the camera sensors right onto the screen. So instead of setting the shot up and really making a big deal of the effects and then going back to normal footage, I wanted it to feel as if the effects were completely part of the scene."
Blomkamp, who directed three shorts in the Halo video-game universe, was hired by Jackson to make a Halo feature. That project foundered after a few months, and Jackson proposed that Blomkamp make a different feature right away. He resuscitated the Alive in Joburg idea, expanding and improving it into District 9. Jackson even let Blomkamp cast Copley, a high school pal who had never acted, in the lead. Amazingly, Copley carries the film, bringing to a most demanding role the scheming dimness of Harry Dean Stanton mixed with the dogged, unwarranted optimism of Steve Carell. Jackson, says Blomkamp, is "the guy that allowed everything to happen." Through the shoot and editing, "he'd always say, 'Make the film you want to make.' " Wise teacher; star pupil.
We ruin no surprises by saying that at the end of the film, there's promise of a sequel. Blomkamp swears that the possibility didn't occur to him until the last week of filming. "Now that I've started thinking about it, I would love to make another movie," he says. "I'd go back. But only if it's successful only if people want it back."
They will. They'd better. For District 9 proves that genre films, besides being a hell of a lot of fun, can say things you hadn't considered and show stuff you haven't seen. There can be few anticipations more pleasant than the promise of Blomkamp's second terrific movie. Bring on District 10.
Reported by Lev Grossman