For humans only: Frenetic and gritty 'District 9' skims the surface of apartheid, sci-fi style
The last time I felt the sort of outrageously kinetic action-movie high "District 9" delivers, it was 1981 and George Miller, Mel Gibson, and "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" had just come roaring out of Australia.
Like that film, "District 9" is a scrappy day-after-tomorrow epic; like it, too, it was made off the Hollywood grid, directed and co-written by the South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp and shot in Johannesburg and the New Zealand studios of producer Peter Jackson. It's an outsider blockbuster, a juicy, bravura piece of moviemaking pulp, and its hellacious style almost -- but not quite -- disguises its shortcomings as a story.
There are no stars other than the concept. "District 9" asks us to imagine that a massive interstellar spaceship might show up one day and park itself over not New York or Washington, D.C., but Jo'burg. The ship's inhabitants are a click-clacking cross between humans, insects, and crustaceans; quickly dubbed "prawns" by wary earthlings, they're shunted off to the festering shantytown of the title. Twenty years pass, during which crime and squalor soar in District 9 while humans outside practice a sort of alien apartheid.
That metaphor stings, and stings hard; if only the movie followed through on it. "District 9" is content to be a loud, smart, frenetic action movie with just a hint of interspecies bonding a la "The Defiant Ones." Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a high-level functionary with MNU Corp., is in charge of relocating the aliens to a concentration camp in the desert; a well-meaning wimp and smug anti-prawn racist, he's also the son-in-law of the company's steely CEO (Louis Minnaar).
During the evictions, Wikus gets a face full of a mysterious liquid and -- well, let's just say he starts to go through some heavy changes. Suddenly, he's a man wanted by the government, his company, his company's secret experimental lab, a strutting sadist of an army colonel (David James), and by the Nigerian crime boss (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) who runs District 9's black market economy and wants to shore up his mojo by eating a crucial part of Wikus's anatomy.
The hero's only ally turns out to be "Christopher Johnson," a towering alien who seems smarter than your average prawn and who, in fact, turns out to hold the key to the entire 20-year mystery. Christopher has a young son, too -- a figure of adorable CGI insect resourcefulness -- but the movie doesn't exactly stop to smell the roses. Once "District 9" shifts into gear, each sequence is a white-knuckle action set piece designed to top the one immediately preceding it. Bullets fly, cars detonate, the land-speed record for cursing is broken early and often. After a certain point, Wikus discovers he has the rare human ability to control the alien's biotech weaponry, and the movie really takes off the gloves.
This is all visualized with wit, verve, and the narrow worldview of a very well-produced video game. (Blomkamp was originally supposed to make the big screen version of the hit game Halo; this film, adapted from an earlier short, is his consolation prize for losing the gig.) "District 9" is filmed from a confusing multiplicity of fictional sources -- we see the action via security cameras, cable-news footage, a MNU corporate documentary, and Blomkamp's own omniscient narrative eye. None of these sits still for a second; if you have trouble with "Bourne Identity" shaky-cam syndrome, be aware that all of "District 9" has been filmed in seizure-cam.
It's an affectation that wears out its welcome, as do other aspects of the movie (the coincidences that bring Wikus and Christopher together not once but twice, or the mysterious liquid that serves whatever purpose the screenplay needs at any given moment). There's ultimately less to "District 9" than meets the eye, even if an awful lot meets the eye. The details, more than anything, are what stick with you: the mothership that hangs over the city like an immense abandoned car, the aliens' addiction to canned cat food, the way the film co-opts the language of one of the 20th century's most virulently racist forms of government.
To what end, though? That there was actually a District 6 in Cape Town that served the same function for human beings as this movie's District 9 does for computer-generated shrimp is a tragedy Blomkamp doesn't get remotely close to. Despite the bad-boy brainiac production values and the film's relentless pace, there's no poetry to "District 9" -- no vision behind the vision -- until the very final shot. That last image is haunting, certainly, and it makes me want to see what this filmmaker does next, but it's also too little too late.