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'District 9' Review: A Great Film On All Levels

August 3rd, 2009 1:01pm EDT
District 9Well, that wasn't supposed to happen. "District 9" was supposed to be another tired Man Versus Scary Alien late summer crapfest. Actually, when you think about the plot, it really should be a crapfest. "District 9" has absolutely no business being A Good Film. But, yet, here it is and here we are. We: the late summer movie going audience desperately seeking out... something... anything; one last eensy weensy morsel of precious, precious entertainment to use as an excuse to get out of the wretched heat of a mid-August sun . It: not content to be just A Good Film -- but, rather, A Great Film. And, on certain levels, maybe even An Important Film.

Whatever you think you know about "District 9" is, probably, wrong. "Well," you say, "It's about a reporter that discovers..." No. Wikus (Sharlto Copley), the main character, is not a reporter. He's a government bureaucrat. "OK, fine" you contend, "he discovers the atrocities that are occurring in District 9 and fights to help..." Nope. Wikus is well aware of what's happening in the district and, at first, is part of a team that's making things a bit worse. "Well, there are big scary evil aliens, right?" Evil? No. Scary? Not really, ornery might be a better adjective. Aliens? Yes!

You see, "District 9" plays out quite realistically -- if, you know, a giant alien spaceship visited Earth. Twenty years ago a spacecraft appears over Johannesburg, South Africa, and, for awhile, absolutely nothing happens. Finally, a mission to the hovering ship is implemented and around one million sick and malnourished aliens are found. They're brought down to the city, a large scale humanitarian effort takes place. Samaritans from around the world arrive to help feed and shelter the visitors. What happens next? Well, what always happen when the news of the day shifts to another story? Except for the government and a Nigerian gang who both have interest in their weapon technology, they're forgotten. (Remember those Iran elections the media cared so much about? Oh, yeah, you might not because Michael Jackson died.)

The aliens are far from evil -- writer and director Neill Blomkamp describes them as worker bees after the queen bee has died: a bit lost and without a purpose -- just neglected and, in terms of their life on Earth, quite poor. They live in a slum and absolutely no one wants them here -- especially the human residents of the slum. Wikus Van De Merwe is in charge -- a job he was given by his father-in-law -- of a relocation effort of the aliens from District 9 to the even less desirable District 10. Under South African law, each alien must be served an eviction notice. This is why Wikus and his team are in the district; to serve and have each alien sign a copy of his eviction notice.

District 9

Image © Columbia Tristar Marketing Group, Inc.

Wikus does, eventually, take an interest in the aliens' well being. But not because Wikus has a sudden influx of morality or righteousness -- his motives are strictly selfish. There's a lot of selfishness at play in this film and not a lot to like about human behavior. The most genuine character in the film is named Christopher Johnson -- you may be surprised who Christopher Johnson turns out to be.

It next to impossible to ignore -- considering the film's South African setting -- the underlying comparisons of the aliens' plight to that of apartheid. Blomkamp -- a South African native -- draws on his own experiences of his home country and transforms black and white racial tension to human and aliens on a surprisingly low 30 million dollar budget. This isn't a particularly scary film, but it is gory (Christ, is it gory) and it has something to say. The thing is: even if you completely ignore "District 9"'s themes, there are aliens and a lot of things explode -- people seem to enjoy that. As stated: "District 9" shouldn't really be a good film; it shouldn't be a great film. It is. "District 9" is the best film of the summer -- possibly, so far, the year.

Grade: A+

Related: Read our interview with "District 9" Director Neil Blomkamp

Mike Ryan
"Mike's Pulse" is a column written by transplanted Midwesterner and current New Yorker Mike Ryan. For any compliments or complaints -- preferably the former -- you may contact Mike directly at miker@starpulse.com
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