‘District 9’ blends action, satire

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, September 3, 2009 5:27pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

There’s no such thing as a do-it-yourself blockbuster, but “District 9” is Hollywood’s idea of one: lots of action and special effects, large-scale mayhem, limited budget.

Of course, a $30 million budget sounds “limited” only in comparison to, say, the $175 million budget of “G.I. Joe,” which is a more customary price tag for these kinds of things.

And “District 9” had help in the DIY department, although it is the first feature for its South African director, Neill Blomkamp. When “Lord of the Rings” maestro Peter Jackson is your executive producer, your film can’t be said to have come out of nowhere.

Still, this film does have the snap of originality, unfiltered by committees and boardrooms. Its faux-documentary style rushes us headlong into a bizarre situation: an enormous alien spacecraft has parked itself in the sky above Johannesburg.

Humans have pulled about a million starving, shrimp-like aliens from the craft and installed them in ramshackle ghettoes in Johannesburg. Now the aliens are getting restless.

A massive effort to relocate the “prawns” (as they are derogatorily called) results in one government bureaucrat entering the slums and accidentally getting infected with alien goo. After that — well, let’s not spoil too much of the headlong action that follows.

“District 9” blends action and satire in a way that recalls the first “RoboCop” movie, and its South African setting and use of separate camps for the alien population can’t help but conjure up still-raw memories of the obscene apartheid regime there.

The clueless government agent is perfectly embodied by smiling, bungling Sharlto Copley, who might have stumbled out of a Lars von Trier picture. His character is taken on a journey that can be described as transformative (in more ways than one), which allows him to see things from the other side.

This is ingeniously mapped out. Blomkamp expanded the idea from his short film, “Alive in Joburg,” and despite all the special effects, the movie has a handmade quality that really works.

I’m fatigued with the faux-documentary style (and almost everybody who uses it is inconsistent about applying it), but a certain roughness fits the “District 9” program. Plus, the aliens are cool.

In using recent political history as the subtext for his story, Blomkamp is following in a long science-fiction tradition: illustrating mankind’s persistent stupidity, even after we have supposed learned lessons.

Blending that with humor and action in an entertaining package is no small feat.

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