According to director and Peter Jackson protégé Neill Blomkamp, his new film, District 9 incorporates the conceits of two genres: the metaphorical probing of the best sci-fi and the smash-em-up sequences of big-budget action. When his movie focuses on the former, it succeeds wildly. When it focuses on the latter, it becomes, well, a smash-em-up adrenaline fest-ably done, but not particularly interesting.
Taking its title from the forced relocation of more than 60,000 blacks from Cape Town's District Six during the 1970s, District 9 imagines what might happen if an alien species arrived on Earth, not as aggressors or diplomats, but as refugees. When a space ship stalls out over Johannesburg, the 1 million creatures government workers find inside are sick and scared. And they continue to be so when the movie picks up 20 years later in a slum where the species, struggling to adapt to human culture, is increasingly clashing with the natives.
Adrift in a world they find confusing and unwelcoming, the aliens cling to the pitiful shantytown in District 9 that they have made their home. So they understandably react with extreme resistance when the South African government contracts with a private company, Multi-National United (MNU), to relocate them to an internment camp further away from the city. Heading up this effort is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an MNU middle-manager whose bumbling attempts at leadership and tone-deafness in relating to the public could only be matched by The Office's Michael Scott.
Wikus wields his meager authority with a zest reserved to small-minded men until he meets Christopher, an alien desperate to protect his son and determined to improve conditions for his race. Through Christopher, we see that the people of Johannesburg have mistaken the aliens' ignorance of earthly customs for simplemindedness. They're not naturally unintelligent or especially disposed to violence; they are merely unassimilated and have been pushed by social engineering into circumstances that breed poverty and chaos.
Though based on events in the apartheid era, the themes the film grasps at are bigger than one instance of human rights' abuse in a foreign country. Clearly, the presence of the aliens creates problems. On the simplest level, the "prawns," as they're derisively called, require some kind of assistance in establishing housing and acquiring food and other necessities. The fact that they arrive diseased and dying presents potential health risks. On a more complex level, their lack of understanding of their host culture and the drag they place on the public coffers engenders fear and resentment amongst some of the citizenry. The areas they live in become havens of crime as gangs seek to benefit on the aliens' vulnerability, establishing black markets to trade in their weaponry and prostitution rings to trade in their bodies.
As director Blomkamp makes clear with a documentary style in which so-called experts-historians, sociologists, law enforcement, etc.-give interviews regarding events in District 9, there are few obvious right answers on how to solve such problems. But there are many wrong ones, and the responses of Wikus and other human characters are all-too-believable and all-too horrifying. Particularly grotesque is a scene in which Wikus laughs with easy jocularity while ordering the burning of alien eggs. His later disgust at how quickly the impoverished prawns "breed" calls to mind certain ideologies driving the abortion movement.
But when the movie turns from its documentary approach and goes into straight narrative, it loses steam and gains an excessive amount of gore and profanity that earn it an R rating. The only thing saving the story is an astonishingly impressive performance from Copley. His every incarnation as Wikus-first as a cheerful, if incompetent suit, then as a pathetic xenophobe, to finally a self-sacrificing warrior-rings true. Almost as true as the least bloody, but ugliest parts of District 9.