Just a couple of weeks ago, I was ranting about the definition of good science fiction. More than just a platform for jive-talking robots, good science fiction should use the extraordinary and the visionary to hold a mirror up to the human condition. I’m happy to report that District 9 succeeds in that endeavor and earns a place on my list of good sci-fi. (Not to be confused with SyFy, which is just stupid.) While most alien movies are about defeating or escaping the slimy, scaly or tentacled creatures, District 9 takes a surprisingly more cynical (and undoubtedly realistic) view: How would we exploit them?
Wikus Van De Merwe (played to perfection by Sharlto Copley) is a mid-level manager in the alien affairs office. For the past 20+ years, the city of Johannesburg has played reluctant host to a stranded ship of over a million aliens. In a sad bit of xenophobic realism, we never really learn the aliens’ names or the name of their people. The world just refers to them derogatively as “prawns,” and they’ve all been given English names by the government, anyway. Wikus works for his father-in-law, who has no problem sending him into the dangerous District 9 slums to begin evicting the aliens and moving them to a new location. What Wikus finds there, and how he evolves from an insecure government bully into someone and something altogether more human is what makes District 9 a really outstanding film.
It is by no means perfect. There are some big leaps in logic, even for a sci-fi film. And while critics (and the filmmakers themselves) are calling it wholly original, it clearly draws inspiration from a library of other sources, from The Twilight Zone to Aliens to Total Recall to Alien Nation to The Office. But while the situations and characters may have a familiar or archetypal feel, what they do with them makes for a surprising and satisfying tale about man’s inhumanity to man, alien or anything else we can get our hands on. And I’ll give them credit for creating the most hate-able movie villain in recent memory. I can’t tell you his name or the actor who plays him, because the District 9 website is so clever and meta-immersive that they don’t mention the actual film at all. But the WNU commander who relentlessly pursues Wikus gives Robert Patrick‘s T-1000 new competition for job dedication.
Director Neill Blomkamp has crafted a gritty political thriller that feels all-too-real in an era where the world continues to turn its back on genocide and the subjugation of people who have no voice or resources. We’ve seen recent films that are edited together as part documentary, part surveillance video and part handheld camera, but District 9 manages to use this device so artfully that it never feels artificial or overwrought. That, plus Sharlto Copley’s Oscar-caliber performance, make District 9 a moving and harrowing story of “not in my back yard” paranoia taken to a galactic level.
On the FBOTU Scale of Fabulousness, I give District 9 4 out 5 bug-eyed alien emoticons:
I debated whether or not to give it 5, but the aforementioned leaps in logic and some missing information knocked it down a rating. But only just barely.