Ever since I started reading science fiction a few years ago, I’ve been violently disappointed by every science fiction movie I’ve seen. After all, once you’ve read something by an author as flamboyant and vibrantly engaging as Harlan Ellison, or even something as pointlessly meandery but well-thought-out as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, it’s hard to muster any interest in yet another cookie-cutter action-movie-in-space oh-my-god-they-did-it-again snoozefest. And in fact, I probably wouldn’t even have seen District 9 if I hadn’t found out Neill Blomkamp–director of the painfully short but lovable “Alive in Joburg”–had directed it.
Well, I’m very glad I didn’t miss it, because now I don’t need to bother seeing another movie for the rest of the year. With the possible exception of Children of Men, District 9 is the best movie of the decade.
Allow me to summarize the plot (the utterance of which you should take as a SPOILER WARNING): twenty years ago, a huge alien spacecraft hovered into place over Johannesburg, South Africa, and stalled. Those cheeky, curious humans, in typical fashion, chopped a hole in the side and found it full of dirty, emaciated, sickly aliens, who were promptly pounced upon by immigration agents and shuffled off into District 9, a slummy, decrepit shantytown near the city. Twenty years later, Wikus van de Merwe, an alien affairs agent working for MNU (the agency tasked with keeping the gross and squishy aliens (called “prawns”) out of sight of the sensitive, right-minded South Africans), has been tasked with going into District 9 and politely informing the aliens that we-uns don’t like yer kind ’round our fair city ‘o J’hannesberg no mores. Being a dunce and an asshole (“Here, take that, a souvenir from your first abortion!”, he says jovially at one point), he immediately gets himself into trouble and launches a massive battle that involves MNU, the downtrodden prawns, Nigerian gangsters, and enough firepower to level the whole of ol’ Joburg.
By now, this isn’t really sounding like the setup for a typical action movie, which is convenient, because District 9 is anything but. About half of the scenes are shot in an amazingly well-done documentary style (eat your heart out, Cloverfield), and it’s hard to fight the urge to write your congressperson about the horrible treatment of the prawns of Johannesburg. You see the aliens walking around, fighting over scraps of food, cowering in their shanties, pissing in the street, quibbling with Nigerians, generally trying to make a living. You know, like sentient beings are prone to doing. These are not the erudite space-angel cop-out bullshit aliens of movies like Close Encounters, these aliens are gritty and physical and, thanks to the best application of CGI I have ever seen, look REAL. I mean really real. Coming out of the theater, I half-expected a lobsterlike thing with a tentacled face and voice like a man hocking a loogie to beg me for spare change.
To me, it’s odd that District 9 should be such a damned good movie, seeing as it’s got a lot of the standard components of the genre: aliens with a dubious relationship to the oppressive humans, gunplay, energy weapons, conspiracies, biotechnology. It’s like Blomkamp disassembled a Yugo and somehow reassembled the parts into a Lamborghini. A low-emission hybrid Lamborghini, at that.
Which gets to my main point, and the reason District 9 puts pretty much everything that came before to shame. It actually has something to say about the world. In between (and sometimes in the middle of) the raging gunfights with “pop-goes-everybody” cannons and powered armor suits, are gritty bits of slice-of-life. The exact same social forces that allowed apartheid to flourish in South Africa for decades have forced the prawns into a miserable, dirty, painful existence. Because all human beings are greedy bastards who fear anything different from them, the prawns live in ghettos, surviving on catfood in tin shacks, and MNU saw a convenient opening to make some money off them at the same time. Wikus, like the audience, is force-fed this realization, and although it’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t come off as preachy. Neill Blomkamp has such a keen sense for both cinema and society that he’s able to pack conspiracy theories, gunfights, dark humor, and sci-fi tomfoolery end-to-end-to end without it seeming crass or exploitative or, worse, forced.
If you were still expecting a little patch of criticism in spite of the last seven hundred words of fanboyish gushing, well, the best I can do is that Blomkamp did manage to shoehorn an excessively-evil villain into the mix, one of those really annoying movie villains who keeps failing to die. There are a few other nitpicky complaints I could make, but honestly, for the first time ever, the rest of the movie is so good it actually makes up for its flaws. District 9 is a child of a different era, an era when people didn’t say “Donnie eats Doritos and plays World of Warcraft in his mother’s basement 20 hours a day, but he’s still a decent boy,” and when people didn’t say, “Well, the plot’s kinda stupid, but see it for the effects.” This is a movie from the era of “Well, George may have lost that arm in Korea, and maybe he drinks way too much, but he puts food on the table, so god bless him!” What I’m trying (a little too hard, I suspect) to get across is that District 9 is a movie that cares about the world, made by people who care about real social issues, and at the same time, is so incredibly entertaining that I never once felt like I was being preached to.
In summary: District 9 is substantial, beautiful, gross, amusing, funny, action-packed, textured, real, and enormously fun. You should see it, but don’t come crying to me when everything else this year is a pathetic disappointment in comparison.
Final Judgment: * * * * * * * * * º (9.9/10)
(I saw the movie on Sunday, and I have yet to come up with a single decent “prawn cocktail” joke. For shame!)
(Mr. Blomkamp: as per our previous arrangement, please send the seven million rand to my secret account in the Caymans)