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Movie Review: District 9
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: August 16th 2009

Sci-fi fans have recently been waiting for the newest "aliens have come to earth" movie, and this weekend it's District 9.

If you've seen previews or early reviews of the movie, you think you know what it is - a standard chase-and-evade, stuff-will-blow-up stuntfest for summer movie fare. Fortunately for moviegoers interested in something a bit more, the previews and early reviews do not do this movie justice.

Unfortunately, there's no way to review this movie without spoiling what's going on. So if you're one of those people who avoids spoilers, go visit someplace else until you've seen the movie.

Still here? Good.

The basic premise of any sci-fi movie is establishing what world it's in. For District 9, it's earth. Earth of Summer 2009, actually, just not the Earth of Summer 2009 you live in. In this Earth, an alien spaceship showed up 20 years ago and parked itself above Johannesburg, South Africa. After watching it for a few months, the nations of Earth looked it over, sent up troops to cut their way in, and found a ship full of refugee aliens.

Unlike most science fiction movies, these aliens do not look even remotely human, save for being somewhat bipedal and having two eyes. In the place of a mouth, they have small tentacles. Their insectoid bodies have small, extra arms sticking out in various places, and they have "hands" that are part finger, part tentacle. Part of the magic of the movie is in getting the idea right that the "prawns", as they've been dubbed, each look identifiably different (very little "all aliens look alike" issues) and don't bother speaking English - when they speak, it's in their native "clickspeak", and their dialogue is subtitled, though it's obvious enough that the humans interacting with them are having little trouble understanding click, and vice versa.

Of course, since these are refugee aliens, they were pushed into a refugee camp. And since it's in South Africa, there's plenty of room for a bit of preachiness; the natives of South Africa have, over the years, gotten into the habit of seeing the "prawns" as invaders or worse, and a semi-Apartheid setup has developed. "Prawns" are mostly restricted to staying in the camp, their dietary needs filled by eating trash, chopped-up offal, and the occasional can of cat food (which, curiously, fulfills their biological needs and tastes good enough that they'll do some pretty dastardly things to get it).

Of course, with poverty comes crime... so a complex system has developed. "MultiNational United", your standard stand-in for "we hate big corporations", is "in charge" of the camp and of the effort to resettle the aliens to an area further away from Johannesburg (to "relieve tensions", and so on). Nigerians have come in to fill the "less than legal" areas, selling human prostitution (weird), buying alien weaponry (which is supposed to be illegal), and occasionally trying to eat alien body parts in the belief that this will somehow let them use the aliens' genetically keyed, but crazily lethal and powerful, weaponry.

The protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe (yeah, the name gets a bit weird), is the son-in-law of MNU's head honcho, and thus gets tapped to lead the effort to "legalize" (by tricking or forcing them to sign off on 'notices of eviction) the forcible eviction of the aliens from their slums in District 9 over to a cramped tent-city dubbed "District 10." Of course, it's not that easy. Wikus gets exposed to an alien substance, starts turning into one of them, gets dragged off by MNU to a secret lab where genetic experiments are conducted on alien corpses, used as a test subject to prove he can operate the alien machinery, and then caught up in a plot by a few of the more intelligent Prawns to get their ship moving again and go home.

As convoluted as it may seem, it works, and the characters (both human, and CGI) interact in a believable manner, so believable that it's hard at times to realize that all the "aliens" are, in fact, CGI and not just some really thin guy in a suit.

The other part of the movie's magic is in the way perspective is changed. At the beginning, it's like a documentary - film clips following how the aliens arrived on Earth, their "rescue", the creation of the District 9 slums, the evolution of the South Africans' attitudes towards the "Prawns", carefully scripted clips showing Wikus getting his troops and people together to begin the eviction. Gradually, the mask slips, and viewers are shown things they aren't "meant" to see - the methods by which the Prawns are being "legally" removed, the quickness and glee with which troops shoot to kill, the ugly side of the presence of the Nigerian criminal gangs. After a while, the movie slips into a combination of news reports and standard movie action following Wikus around, tracking how far his transformation progresses, and checking in on what's going on at MNU's secret labs and their genetic experimentation.

If you've got any interest at all in well-done science fiction, or well-done drama, you should see this one. I won't say it's perfect, since it's got preachy moments stuffed in, but it is quite probably the best sci-fi movie you're going to see this year..

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Movie Review: District 9

Added:  Sunday, August 16, 2009
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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