On the wings of weeks of breathless fan-boy hype, "District 9" roars into theaters on Friday, adding a much-needed jolt of excitement and originality to the dog days of summer movie releases.
This is a gruesome, funny, smart, original piece of filmmaking from first-time director (and Peter Jackson protege) Neill Blomkamp, who has potential greatness stamped into his DNA. Shot on a relatively low budget, "District 9" nevertheless dazzles with special effects and kinetic action sequences----and it has an aliens-among-us story worthy of the Rod Serling or Ray Bradbury catalog.
"District 9" plays like a mix of styles. Sometimes it's as if we're watching news footage, or a documentary. In other sequences, it's as if we're looking at someone's home movies. When the guns blaze and the explosions pop, it's like a big-budget action film. Think "Cloverfield" meets "Independence Day."
For once, an alien spaceship doesn't hover over New York or Washington, D.C. As we learn in the opening, docu-style sequence, this alien ship has been stalled out over Johannesburg for 20 years after running out of fuel. The hard-shelled inhabitants of the ship walk on two legs, speak in clicking sounds and are so physically repulsive the locals derisively refer to them as bottom-feeding "prawns." Unable to use their sophisticated weaponry or fuel their ship because they're lacking a certain kind of black fluid, the prawns have been ghettoized, living in slum camps and separated from the human population. For some reason, they dig cat food. They don't seem particularly violent, lashing out at each other or at humans only when they're cornered and desperate, or defending their families.
Even so, the humans in Johannesburg (who not so long ago lived under a different kind of apartheid) want these creatures to go away, far away. Anywhere but in their city. So the government enlists a private company called Multinational United (MNU) to round up the prawns and send them to a concentration camp 200 miles outside the city.
The MNU operative in charge of the mission is Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a weaselly little mid-level nobody who gets the job because he's married to the boss's daughter. Wikus is a sweaty, smarmy creep who delights in taunting the prawns, cackling wildly as MNU burns down a shack containing dozens of prawn fetuses, gleefully reveling in the "popping" sound as the fetuses explode.
But then something happens to Wikus, something I'd rather not reveal here, that makes him the most wanted human on the planet and leads to him teaming up with an alien named Christopher Johnson, who has been working for years on a plan to re-ignite the spaceship and take his people home.
Time and again, "District 9" gives us four-star gross-out moments. Humans eat alien body parts in the belief it will give them super-strength. Characters die in spectacularly bloody fashion. Heads are severed. Blomkamp and his crew seamlessly blend special effects and location shots, and the cast of unknowns does a great job of selling this story. Wikus is by far the most developed character in the story, and Copley does brilliant work as we gradually come to like and even admire Wikus. Rarely have we seen a more unlikely hero in a sci-fi film.
"District 9" is brimming with political metaphors, but the script is too smart to hammer us over the head with the messages. We get it, but we don't feel as if we're being lectured.
This is a stunningly original thrill ride, a bloody hell of a good time.