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Some movies pack such a terrific central idea, even their flaws can't stop the train. "District 9" is one of them.
In its first hour it barrels along with the velocity and assurance of a new classic; as it settles for being a good, splattery addition to the venerable aliens-come-calling genre, you feel a slight letdown. But that first half? Nice.
Pulp moviemakers constantly challenge themselves to find the right sort of realism to lend to a far-out premise. In the case of "District 9," which is set largely in the hot, packed townships of Johannesburg and recasts the apartheid era as an escalating bi-species conflict, the movie's effectiveness is nearly unthinkable without its location shooting, and without its larger allegorical element.
The film marks the feature debut for South African-born Canadian resident Neill Blomkamp, who co-wrote the script with longtime colleague and fellow Canadian Terri Tatchell.
Based on Blomkamp's short film "Alive in "Jo'burg," "District 9" sets up its alternate-reality premise beautifully. Twenty years ago, an enormous, city-size UFO descended from the sky, hovered over Johannesburg -- and stayed there, revealing nothing of its contents. Then the nations of the world got curious, opened it up (we see all this in frantic news footage), and out spilled a million-plus creatures, refugees from their home planet.
Dubious human solutions to an unwanted immigration wave set off one powder keg after another.
The alien ship comes laden with amazingly sophisticated and destructive weaponry. Due to some DNA quirk, humans cannot operate the weapons, though of course there wouldn't be much of a movie if that were the end of that story.
Nicknamed "prawns" by a hostile, fearful human populace, the human-size creatures overrun the shantytowns, run afoul of Nigerian gangsters and eventually become the target of a relocation effort overseen by a private security firm known as Multi-National United. The company head's son-in-law, a grinning fool played by Sharlto Copley, is supposed to be in charge of this operation. But when he runs afoul of a certain alien fluid resembling motor oil ...
There's nothing new about the style of this picture.
Blomkamp and his cinematographer, Trent Opaloch, shoot it like a documentary from the future, looking back on recent tragic events.
The mock-TV-news footage depicts aliens hopped up on their drug of choice, cat food, or scenes of human/alien clashes in the shantytowns; the faux-distressed TV-news jiggle is ever-present. But the details are fresh, and the early scenes couldn't be better or more vivid. "This is how something like this would happen," you think.
Then, some problems. The pace becomes unvarying as opposed to exhilarating.
As the film focuses increasingly on the plight of an alien father and son who hold the key to their species' survival, the movie tips into more conventional and even sentimental territory (if "sentimental" can be used in place of "ungodly amounts of alien and human guts going blooey"). The casting of Copley is problematic. He's not really an actor; his resume is heavy on producing, directing and effects work, and his overeager hamming would be better suited to a movie such as "Dead Alive," the Peter Jackson zombie romp.
"District 9" has a different tone and texture, and it tucks its blackly comic sense of humor inside a serious situation -- ridiculous, but serious. It's pretty grueling in its way, and very violent. But in this summer of gargantuan mediocrities, a modestly budgeted project with an actual idea in its head and the wiles to manifest it onscreen, exploding heads and all -- that's something.
District 9 MPAA rating: R (for bloody violence and pervasive language).
Running time: 1:52.
Starring: Sharlto Copley (Wikus Van Der Merwe); Jason Cope (Christopher Johnson); David James (Koobus Venter); Mandla Gaduka (Fundiswa Mhlanga); Vanessa Haywood (Tania).
Directed by Neill Blomkamp; written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell;
Produced by Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham.
A Tri Star release.
District 9 Movie Review - Sharlto Copley & Jason Cope
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