[Screen It]

(2009) (Sharlto Copley, David James) (R)

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Sci-fi: A corporate field supervisor finds his life upended when his attempts to evict unwanted extraterrestrials from a Johannesburg slum result in changes to his body that make him an outcast, but one highly desired by other humans.
It's been 20 years since an extraterrestrial mother ship ended up stranded floating above the city of Johannesburg. The emaciated aliens -- human-sized but with the appearance of humanoid insects -- found onboard were brought down to a military camp that eventually turned into a slum. With public opinion toward the creatures eventually souring and then turning racist, especially with most so-called prawns coming off as unsavory and nasty scavengers, Multinational United (MNU) has been contracted to evict the prawns from the slum and relocate them elsewhere, far away from humans.

Having worked for the Dept. of Alien Affairs, Wikus Van De Merwe (SHARLTO COPLEY), is tapped to head the relocation program. Accompanied by trainee Fundiswa (MANDLA GADUKA) and MNU soldier Thomas (KENNETH NKOSI), Wikus goes door to door, not only serving the eviction notices, but also confiscating the aliens' powerful weapons that can only be fired by contact with prawn DNA. During one such search of a shack inhabited by one prawn -- named Christopher Johnson (voice of JASON COPE) by the humans -- Wikus is exposed to an alien fluid that both sickens him and transforms his DNA.

The result is that his arm has mutated into a prawn arm, and he's quickly whisked away by officials for observation and testing, thus worrying his wife, Tania (VANESSA HAYWOOD). When he realizes his company is going to dissect him not only due to the change but also because he's now the only human who can operate the alien weapons, Wikus escapes and goes on the run.

As he finds himself an outcast in both the human and prawn worlds, he hides in the prawn slum known as District 9, searching for a cure and allying himself with Christopher, all while trying to avoid MNU soldier Col. Koobus (DAVID JAMES) who's been ordered to capture and return him, as well as Nigerian black market leader Obesandjo (EUGNE KHUMBANYIWA) who also wants his altered body, but for the supposedly mystical powers brought about by ingesting those parts.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Back in 1983, Phil Collins repeatedly sang the lyric "It's no fun...Being an illegal alien" on the fifth track of Genesis' self-titled album. The song was reportedly meant as a mixture of satire and point-making, and while it rubbed various people the wrong way, its core message is still as relevant today as it was -- gasp -- more than a quarter century ago.

Granted, while there will always be people against any outsiders, there will also be those who feel one degree or another of pity toward them. After all, they're human just like the rest of us and want a better life for themselves and their families, traits shared by most everyone.

But what if said aliens were really aliens, as in little green men or others of any number of hues, shapes and/or genetic makeup that arrive from beyond the heavens? Writer/director Neill Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell explore that notion in "District 9," a well-made pseudo documentary meets political drama meets bang-up action flick that puts most of its bigger-budgeted, fellow summer movies of 2009 to shame.

Reportedly made for "just" $30 million (a lot of money, yes, but a pittance compared to most blockbuster films that cost multiples of that), the film is a full-length version of a 6-minute short, "Alive in Joburg," that Blomkamp made back in 2005. It impressed filmmaker Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson enough that he signed on to help nurture this flick to full fruition.

The story concerns people-sized and somewhat anthropomorphized, cockroach-like extraterrestrials that have become stuck on Earth after their spaceship breaks down (while hovering over the city of Johannesburg). Don't you just hate when that happens, especially when it already did back in 1988 with "Alien Nation?"

Since those here appear to have more in common with insects than humans, they were forced into a camp that then turned into a slum (from which the film gets its title) and now are viewed by people of all races as unwelcome pests that need to go elsewhere. Considering those themes and the setting, few will probably miss the apartheid metaphor, a point driven home by the fact that Blomkamp reportedly grew up under that repressive system that treated non-whites as lesser beings from every standpoint imaginable.

Throw in horrendous scientific experiments performed on the aliens as well as a corporate conglomerate hired to move the millions elsewhere purely for profit rather than any care about their well-being, and the filmmakers are obviously aiming their sights on additional past and present ills of humankind.

While that might sound as if it's uncomfortable and preachy, Blomkamp and company favor the former over the latter, and wrap all of that up in faux documentary footage where various experts, witnesses and such comment on the situation and events, all in the past tense. There's nothing particularly novel about that approach as it's been done before, but just when that starts to wear out its welcome (even with little bits of comedic relief thrown in for good measure), the filmmakers take a thematic and story approach detour.

Although it might also not be particularly fresh, they take the film's protagonist -- nicely played by Sharlto Copley as the corporation's point man in the field -- and turn the tables on him, switching him from the hunter (of sorts) to the hunted. And they do so via a twist that would make Vincent Price, Jeff Goldblum and David Cronenberg proud. After getting sprayed in the face by an unknown alien concoction, he increasingly finds himself in the position of wanting to keep singing Genesis' song, what with the unexpected claw hand he soon finds himself with.

Now stuck in the middle between "us" and "them," he has no choice but to retreat to the titular location where the filmmakers drop in another surprise. And that's showing that not all of the aliens are nasty, cat food loving scavengers, and instead are caring, smart and thus share more attributes in common with their oppressors than ever imagined (cue the thematic metaphor music as the audience is forced to think about their own views of those who don't look or sound exactly like them).

And to top all of that off, the pic then turns into a gritty, action-based war pic where some unlikely partners try to help out each other, all as military and corporate types are determined to put an end to such revelations and those who know about them.

Blomkamp solidly balances all of that material, easily segueing from one storytelling aspect to the next. In doing so, he pulls the viewer along for what turns out to be a fairly engaging, exciting and both eye and mind-opening cinematic experience. Purposefully gritty in a guerilla sort of filmmaking fashion rather than heavily polished like a Hollywood product, "District 9" is a well-made flick that proves you don't need enormous budgets to entertain the masses. Oh, and that it's certainly no fun being an illegal alien, or a hybrid thereof. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed August 6, 2009 / Posted August 14, 2009

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