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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

This review for humans only: Classified report of “District 9”

Published: August 27, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

alien epic: Wickus Van De Merwe (Sharlton Copley) races to save alien species.<br /><i>PHOTO from Internet Source</i>

alien epic: Wickus Van De Merwe (Sharlton Copley) races to save alien species.
PHOTO from Internet Source

Can someone explain to me why a flick about extraterrestrials invading South Africa has more humanity in it than most recent homo sapien-centric Hollywood heartstring pullers?

“District 9” is this summer’s unlikely science fiction hit by writer/director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson (The Lord of The Rings trilogy). And what’s drawn most people’s attention is not the action-packed plot revolving around aliens descending upon earth or the sprawling, vertiginous cinematography but the film’s setting: Johannesburg, South Africa.

Indeed, had the film been set in New York or London, it might have been mistaken for just another big budget sci-fi blockbuster. Yet as soon as the first aerial views of the aliens’ refugee camps on the outskirts of the city appear on screen, I understood why critics have been hurling the “a word”: allegory.

“It’s, like, about apartheid or something,” proclaimed my movie buff friend. Yet I was inclined to see the interpretive possibilities as, like, a bit more complex than that. The film’s brilliance lies in its refusal to succumb to genre clichés, preferring to challenge its viewers with dilemmas such as whether human rights could ever extend to nonhuman creatures. But I’ll leave the full analysis of that one up to the legions of college nerds who I imagine will pen theses on this piece of cerebral cinema.

There’s no denying, however, the connection between this story and that of displaced and oppressed peoples all over the world. The aliens could serve as stand-ins for any group of people made to live in ghettoes as second-class citizens.

The film begins in documentary style, opening with shots of protagonist Wickus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) looking like Michael from “The Office.” Wickus is a bumbling, amiable employee of Multinational United (MNU), a government contractor in charge of extraterrestrial affairs.

The action kicks into high gear after Wickus accidentally comes in contact with an alien substance with the power to fuel the dormant spaceship, which begins to transform him into one of the “prawns.” After this pathetic antihero discovers a horrible MNU secret and becomes a fugitive in District 9, the story comes to focus on his metamorphosis. Just as Wickus goes from bureaucratic fool to self-sacrificing gladiator, the cinematic style changes from “realistic” docudrama to epic sci-fi thriller.

While the high-concept intellectualism fits uneasily with the big budget spectacle of the film’s latter half, any alien flick that exercises the cranium as much as the adrenaline gland is a revelation.

While marginalized ethnic groups don’t have the option of flying away in a hovercraft, the analogy is made shockingly poignant in “District 9.” Move over “E.T.,” it looks like Neill Blombkamp has finally delivered a true interstellar classic.