Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language, 112 minutes
Visually stunning, exciting "District 9" makes sci-fi more appealing
"District 9" is the sleeper hit of the summer, maybe even of the year, but there's no sleeping here. This unconventional sci-fi thriller boasts some of the most astonishing special effects seen this year, a relevant story and some terrific action set pieces. "District 9" is all the more special because it was produced for a modest budget ($30 million), not to mention its director and actors are unknown in the United States. Then why should you pay attention? Two words: Peter Jackson, "Lord of the Rings" master, helps produce the film, that's why. That alone should bring in more audiences outside the comic-con set.
Aliens landed on Earth about 30 years ago, but they didn't land in Manhattan, Paris or Tokyo. Instead, their mothership landed over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the world watched with eager anticipation, awaiting a hostile attack or advances in technology. Neither happened, and the aliens, a reptilian bug-like creature with their own language, came as refugees and settled in South Africa's District 9 until the rest of the world decided what to do with them.
Now, patience over the alien situation has run out. Control over the aliens has been given to Multi-National United (MNU), a private South African company uninterested in the aliens' welfare and only in the weapons they bring and the millions they stand to make from obtaining them. Since activation of the weaponry requires alien DNA, MNU has failed in this and tension between the aliens and the humans reaches a boiling point when an MNU field operative, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), contracts a mysterious virus that begins altering his DNA. Wikus quickly becomes the most hunted man in the world, as well as the most valuable - he is the key to unlocking the secrets of alien technology. Ostracized and friendless, there is only one place left for him to hide: District 9.
"District 9" is a strikingly original, vastly entertaining and visually stunning sci-fi thriller with a no-name director/writer and cast. Filmed last year in South Africa, the film started picking up advance buzz after being shown in comic-con conventions and trailers started generating interest. South African director and visual effects producer Neil Blomkamp helmed a 2005 short film called "Alive in Joburg" that is the basis of "District 9," and that film caught the attention of "Lord of the Rings" director Jackson, who was impressed enough by Blomkamp to give him the money to make this film.
The visual effects, make up and other special effects are the clear highlight of "District 9," unsurprising given Blomkamp's visual effects experience. From the mothership to those aliens to the unique language that Blomkamp gives them, the effects enliven the film at every turn. As impressive as Blomkamp is with visual effects, not everything about "District 9" is perfect. The story, an obvious political metaphor for apartheid and racial discrimination, is relevant but uneven, with the first half a little too expository and talky until is picks up considerable steam in its action-packed second half, with one breathless action set piece with the central character's violent romp and stomp through District 9 in a huge (and totally cool) alien metal suit that will leave audiences talking.
"District 9" also provides what will surely be the breakout performance of 2009 from South African actor Charlto Copley, an unknown actor with little experience (he appeared in Blomkamp's short film, but this is his big-screen debut) but who commands the screen from his opening moments as the nerdy Wikus to his gradual transformation to alien. He single-handedly carries the film and reminds of a younger, more intense Ralph Fiennes.
Sci-fi doesn't always have mass appeal, but "District 9" has enough going for it to be a big hit: memorable visual effects, loads of action, a great story, and of course Peter Jackson, whose presence is felt here. Please note that those who don't typically go out for sci-fi - some of this is intense stuff and there is some graphic violence - but it all suits the story just fine (and in the last act quite entertaining). All in all, the throughly enjoyable, energetic "District 9," whose climax leaves it open for more installments, is an auspicious debut that opens the door for more mainstream sci-fi.