Entering 'District 9'

With its social commentary and existential angst 'District 9' is certainly not your typical alien invasion flick in which plotline is secondary to special effects. Who knew a sci-fi thriller could actually have a heart?

District 9 Comic-Con mini-poster © IMDb staff photo

District 9 is the antidote to the cynical, CGI-obsessed, P.T. Barnum-esque schlock that passes for sci-fi filmmaking these days, films in which people and plot matter little in the service of razzle-dazzle special effects and things that go boom in the night. (Yes, Michael Bay, I’m talking to you. Go forth and “Transform” no more.) It is savagely satirical, yes, sparing no one while sending up xenophobia, the military industrial complex and humankind’s baser instincts. But beneath all that existential angst pulses a surprisingly tender—and hopeful—heart.

It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

You could make the argument that in lesser, American hands, District 9 would look very, very different. It’s the difference between, say, Stephen Sommers’ G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, between Bay’s Armageddon and Duncan Jones’ Moon. But District 9 is written and directed by South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, and produced by seminal New Zealander Peter Jackson, he of The Lord of the Rings blockbusters. There is a different sensibility at work here, and a most welcome one at that.

District 9 starts out mockumentary style, with a simple premise: A couple of decades back, aliens from outer space arrived in a massive mother ship and … just hung out for three months, hovering above Johannesburg. No beatific beings stepped down to great the humanoids, a la Close Encounters. Nor did evil aliens demonstrate intentions to kick some human ass a la Mars Attack and Independence Day. (Though it must be said, the District 9 spaceship looks a lot like the one in Will Smith’s flick, a deliberate move, we are sure, on Blomkamp’s part.)

Finally, some brave souls fly up to the spaceship and open it up, only to discover, not “music from heaven and bright shining lights,” as one witness puts it, but a horror show of malnourished, badly frightened aliens cowering in the dark. One million of them. It is a fleeting, yet powerful image, one conjuring visions of the hull of a slave ship post Middle Passage. (As well as boat people and the undocumented crammed into the trunks of cars, crossing the U.S./Mexican border.) The aliens, now refugees, are moved to a temporary camp, dubbed District 9. Whereupon they quickly wear out their welcome.