All the best science fiction stories — the ones that survive no matter how technology advances — achieve their lasting impact because they say something profound about people, not machines. This is how Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” gets under the skin. It spellbinds with its performances and visuals, but its story about aliens living in South African shantytowns resonates because it’s based on humankind’s desultory track record of dealing with “others.”
In 1982, a large saucer appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa, and just sat there, hovering over the city’s haze-covered skyline until helicopters were finally sent up to investigate. What the crews found were more than 1 million aliens — leaderless, malnourished and living in filth. Eventually the survivors were transported to the surface, but humanitarian efforts soon give way to a resentful containment strategy.
Their new home, a slum called District 9, makes Soweto look like luxury accommodations. The aliens, derisively dubbed “prawns” because of their crustaceanlike appearance, spend most of their time scavenging through garbage piles, poring through the refuse for stray cans of the cat food they crave. Desperate for a solution, the South African government contracts with a Blackwater-like paramilitary corporation called Multinational United (MNU) to relocate the aliens to remote concentration camps.
That is where Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) gets embroiled in a kind of human-alien meltdown of relations. An amiable, pencil-pushing functionary for MNU, Wikus is chosen to oversee the relocation, but his close exposure to the aliens and what they’re really doing in District 9 creates a personal and global crisis. He becomes a victim of himself, the aliens and his own company, and is hunted by a Nigerian warlord (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) who covets what Wikus has become. His only allies in the end are an alien named Christopher Johnson and his young son, and their alliance is tenuous at best.
What proceeds is a seamless, exciting and astonishingly artful thriller: “The Fugitive” in a politically and socially jagged environment — with aliens, no less — that is only a light extrapolation of South Africa’s recent history. Furthermore, Blomkamp made “District 9” for a reported $30 million, or one-fifth the cost of “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” but his visual effects are as fluid and breathtaking as a typical nine-figure blockbuster, and they’re in service to a great story, not the other way around.
But while “District 9” certainly has a conscience, it should not be misconstrued as a heavy-handed polemic. This film simply rocks with a brain instead of having rocks for brains, and for that reason, “District 9” is the science-fiction movie that could teach the major studios a few things about great effects on a shoestring and making action-filled sci-fi that stirs the mind.