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District 9 is resonant but underachieving

Prawn of the dead

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A prawn in their game - PHOTO COURTESY OF TRISTAR PICTURES

District 9 opens Friday throughout the Triangle

It's difficult, if not nearly impossible, to produce any new science fiction movies about extraterrestrial aliens visiting Earth that does not pilfer, intentionally or otherwise, from previous films in the same genre.

When you hear that South African director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is generally about aliens marooned on our planet who have since been living among us for decades, thoughts of such similarly themed films as Alien Nation and V immediately spring to mind. The imposing, saucer-shaped spaceship hovering over Johannesburg that brought the aliens to our planet appears strikingly similar to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and those that blew up the White House and the Empire State Building in Independence Day. The quasi-documentary filmmaking style Blomkamp employs has drawn comparisons to Cloverfield.

District 9 expands on Blomkamp's 2005 six-minute short film, Alive in Joburg, which provides a glimpse of the chaos and racism that ensues throughout Johannesburg as the aliens attempt to integrate into human society. Unlike other films of the same ilk, the aliens here—derisively nicknamed "prawns"—do not look or sound human: They more closely resemble giant, bipedal insects. These interlopers communicate through a series of clicking and gurgling noises that humans have learned to translate.

First appearing in the skies over South Africa back in 1982, the starving aliens are rescued from their derelict spacecraft and quarantined in the titular shantytown, a place designed to evoke the historical, apartheid-era District 6 in Cape Town. Indeed, mirroring the forced removal of District 6's inhabitants during the 1970s, the milieu for District 9 revolves around an effort to relocate the prawns to another concentration camp more than 200 kilometers outside the city.

It is here that District 9 excites and intrigues. The documentary-style approach lends an unsettling verisimilitude to not just the aliens themselves, but also the social, legal and corporate constructs that have developed around their subculture. Inside the slum, Nigerian gangsters set up a criminal enterprise in which they trade food and sex for money and alien weaponry, the latter largely unusable because they are compatible only with users bearing alien DNA. Mistreated by humans, the prawns adopt many of our worst behaviors, including substance abuse and criminal activity.

Meanwhile, a private corporation called Multi-National United (MNU), contracted to provide security for the prawns, seems more interested in exploiting them. Against this backdrop, District 9's plot involves MNU's new head of field operations, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who contracts a strange virus that slowly transforms his DNA and appearance into that of an alien. Shunned by society and hunted by MNU for his financial value, Wikus seeks refuge in District 9.

After this compelling start, the remainder of the film devolves into a rather traditional sci-fi action flick full of firefights and chase scenes. Curiously, the film's point of view totally shifts from handheld, vérité-like video footage and interviews to standard action-movie film language. The film tries to square the circle at the end, with its buckets of blood splattered against the fourth wall, but the film is disappointing after it veers so far from the meta-narrative of its first half.

With its history of apartheid, the choice to set (and film) District 9 in South Africa is especially provocative. However, it's too easy to simply analogize the treatment of the aliens with human racism and thereby affirm its awfulness. The most interesting, unspoken question facing audiences members is—if faced with the reality of such extraterrestrials living among you—whether you would actually support the restrictive, oppressive measures designed to keep them at bay. I suspect most humans would. In the end, Blomkamp sows the seeds for a sequel, but it's the questions posed in District 9's opening act that linger longest.

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