An inspired mash-up of docu-verité comedy and sci-fi splatterfest, South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 throws together sitcom-style humour, provocative satire, thrilling action and gross-out horror – and somehow makes this outlandish mix gel.
The movie opens with newsreel footage that brings us speedily up-to-date with its eye-opening backstory. Over 20 years ago, a hulking great UFO parked itself in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa (a gob-smacking bit of CGI, by the way). The first humans to venture on board the craft discovered a huddled, starving mass of refugees from their home planet. Housing the giant-insect-like creatures in a makeshift camp beneath the alien mothership, the authorities passed responsibility for their welfare to a dodgy corporation called Multi-National United.
Which brings us to the present. Over the intervening years the alien refugee camp has grown into a squalid Soweto-like shantytown known as District 9 and its inhabitants have become subject to relentless hostility and prejudice from local humans, who use the derogatory term “prawns” to describe them. Meanwhile, MNU has been trying, without success, to exploit the aliens’ advanced weaponry. Now, the corporation wants to re-house the prawns hundreds of miles away in a settlement that recalls apartheid-era Bantustans.
The MNU functionary in charge of this task is Wikus van der Merwe (brilliantly played by Sharlto Copley), a pompous, socially inept klutz who resembles Ricky Gervais’s David Brent, not least because he has a documentary crew following him around as he clumsily leads a small team into the camp to begin the eviction process.
Up to this point, first-time director Blomkamp has stuck with his mock documentary conceit, but when Wikus gets infected with an alien virus, the movie abandons its fly-on-the-wall point of view and adopts a more conventional narrative style – an awkward gear change that is one of District 9’s few missteps.
Wikus now finds his body changing alarmingly as the infection takes hold, an icky business that’s not for the squeamish. Forced to go on the run from his colleagues at MNU, who are itching to get their hands on his altered DNA, Wikus has only one place to seek refuge: District 9.
From here on, Blomkamp ramps up the action with thrilling effect. Wikus struggles to evade MNU’s heavily armed mercenaries and forms an awkward but surprisingly touching friendship with an alien and his son. As the unlikely allies fight off their mutual enemies, the violence is shocking, gory, but often grotesquely funny. Amid the mayhem, however, it’s impossible to lose sight of the film’s penetrating satire on racism and xenophobia.
Working apparently with a budget of $30million, but with invaluable aid from producer Peter Jackson, Blomkamp has made a startling debut film. He may owe debts to a string of predecessors, including Alien, The Fly, Starship Troopers, Cloverfield and, er, The Office, but his vision is impressively original and his film decisively trumps the summer’s bloated sci-fi movies from Hollywood.
On general release from 4th September.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.