District 9 left me with a strange feeling as I left the cinema. Almost shaken with this unknown emotion, it took me a few minutes to realise what it was. I had actually seen a satisfying sci fi movie in 2009. No racist robots, ridiculous gravel voices or a finale involving a arch-nemesis whose only power seemed to be two finger typing. There wasn’t even a needless hologram of Helena Bonham Carter. Instead, this may well be the best sci fi film of the decade.
Following the exploits of nervous, jobs worth social worker Wikus van de Merwe (a fantastically natural performance from first time actor Sharlto Copley), we are given a documentary style walkthrough of a post alien colonisation Johannesburg. Yes, post-alien colonisation. We are never truly shown why or how the aliens got there, just that they are there, and that the human governments took them to live on the ground, in the hideous “District 9”. Here, they are beaten, broken, bruised and treated like degenerate animals by the local population, gangs and even the international peacekeeping unit MNU, referring to the aliens simply as Prawns.
This documentary style footage is blended into more traditional cinematography, slowly, but seamlessly without jarring for a moment. Director Neil Blomkampf allows his world to breathe like the fine wine of science fiction that it is, rather than the cheap, over-carbonated, high strength, home brand cider of Transformers 2. This simply allows the action to have the impact that more overblown movies just can’t compete with. That’s not to say that the action isn’t on a large scale here, but it’s there for a reason. District 9 contains some of the most awe inspiring set pieces in recent times, generally due to the visceral nature of them. No pointless acrobatics, just solid, character driven ultra-violence with lightning guns. The highlight of the action comes with the mechanical armour suit seen in the trailer, which is easily one of the best cinematic robots of all time.
Sharlto Copley moves with is transition with equal ease, going from Flight of the Conchords’ “Murray Hewitt” to John McLane without it feeling forced. This is helped by the moral ambiguity of the script, meaning that Wikus is drawn into helping a revolutionary “Prawn” (named Christopher), due to a horrific incident around a third of the way through the film, rather than for some higher calling of fate, a narrative mechanic that is fast becoming the cheap way of drawing the characters together.
If I were to criticise the film, which I shall, it would be that despite it’s anti racism message, there is part of it that I’m, well, not sure if it’s a little bit racist. In addition to aggression from the ruling governing bodies of District 9, they also face threat from a Nigerian gang lead by a man who wants to eat them to steal their power. Certainly, I don’t think it was the intent of the film makers to make it appear to be a national slur, and given the pro equality message of the rest of the film, it’s probably nothing to worry about.
District 9 is a film that I would find impossible not to recommend. The story is original, full of social commentary and flows at a pace that strikes the right balance of speed so it never becomes too rushed or too slow. The action is impressive throughout, and the special effects are gorgeous. No bowing to demographics, or worse still, middle American test audiences that butcher creativity and originality wherever they tread. Instead we have an undiluted artistic vision that excites, and not touched by corporate demands for profiteering. Catch it before Fox buy the rights for the sequel.