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Sci-Fi done well

‘District 9’ is allegory, special effects extravaganza.


'DISTRICT 9:' Sharlto Copley stars.
  • 'DISTRICT 9:' Sharlto Copley stars.


During the era of apartheid in South Africa, District Six was an area located near the center of Cape Town. In 1966, the South African government found District Six too slummy and crime-ridden, and chose to raze the existing structures in order to cleanse the neighborhood. Newly built homes there were to be occupied by whites only. The government began evicting and removing the population of District Six to outlying areas of the city, and eventually 60,000 inhabitants of the district were illegally evicted from their homes by their government and forced to relocate.

As devotees of the sci-fi genre know, if sci-fi is done well, it can address serious and mature themes. If done poorly, the result is an endless series of cliches, or worse — a two-hour toy commercial. Thankfully, “District 9”, for its (few) faults, can easily be placed in the “done well” category, with first-time writer-director Neill Blomkamp using apartheid as a jumping-off point for his tale. 

Filmed documentary style, “District 9” opens with experts describing how a spaceship entered the earth's orbit and hovered inertly over Johannesburg in 1981. Humans “rescued” the malnourished occupants of the craft and placed them in a refugee camp dubbed District 9.  The altruism of these efforts is lessened when it's revealed the craft contained numerous new weapons technologies. For 28 years, District 9 matured in a way that any community filled with the lower class or socially unwanted would — it disintegrated into a slum.  Around Johannesburg, posters and signs began appearing restricting access to parks and buildings to “Humans Only.” “Prawns” — the epithet given to the aliens based on their appearance — are not welcome, and humans often voice their belief that aliens should go back to where they came from. Crime grows and vice flourishes in District 9, until the government decides to move the occupants to an area outside of Johannesburg. In order to accomplish this relocation, the government has contracted the work to Multi-National United (MNU), a weapons manufacturer set to receive windfall profits if it can learn to utilize the aliens' technology. The film opens on the morning of that relocation operation and traces the events of the following dramatic 72 hours.

“District 9” is a visually stunning and action-packed film, and in the end people will take away from it what they want.  For “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” fans, this is a fantastic special-effects popcorn movie.  For others, it is an elaborate allegory. It's not an overly subtle film and the violence veers towards excessive, made worse by the hyper-realism of the documentary-style filming. There are also inconsistencies, both with the documentary format and with characters' changing attitudes or motivations. However, it is a rare summer blockbuster that actually attempts to be interesting and thought-provoking, and for that Blomkamp should be applauded. The fact that the film almost succeeds in being great should not deter you from catching it soon.

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