The new science-fiction film District 9 has a clever, rather amusing opening premise. Where the alien mothership in Spielberg’s Close Encounters found a welcoming home in the hearts of the American misfits and dreamers of the ‘70s, the spacecraft that appears in District 9 above Johannesburg (in the waning days of apartheid in the ‘80s) finds the exact opposite. If E.T. were aboard, they’d quickly send him home - if not kill him. As it turns out, aboard this ship is a crew of crustacean-shaped creatures (pejoratively called “Prawns” by the South Africans) who are lost, hungry and (before too long) crowded like illegal refugees into ghettos.
While the irony is obvious, director Neill Blomkamp thankfully doesn’t employ a heavy hand in milking it. But, sadly, he doesn’t really develop it, either. Blomkamp begins District 9 in a mock documentary style that looks back to 1982 when the ship arrived, hovering like a cloud over the city, and how the alien refugees became unruly and unwelcome in their new country. But he doesn’t delve into the promising story he sets up. For instance, Blomkamp doesn’t develop the tribal conflicts that were very much part of the collapsing apartheid system as a means to show how both blacks and whites could easily project their grievances on the creatures. The space folk instead are presented simply as a metaphor for the oppressed. They also seem to have very few people on their side. (Maybe if they’d looked like the dolphins in The Cove?) None of the political implications are fully examined, either, and before too long the picture is nothing more than a routine action story. (It’s like a high tech version of Alien Nation.)
The story follows the ambitious bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who is promoted to the role of eviction landlord. He is charged to move over a million “prawns” into a more outlying district so that they will no longer be offending the locals. But while performing his task, Wikus accidentally ingests a can of alien fluid. Soon he starts to transform into a prawn himself (the way Jeff Goldblum turned into the fly). When the military realizes that Wikus is slowly turning into an alien, he becomes part of a medical experiment to find ways to exterminate the space folk. But Wikus escapes from the lab and hides out in the ghetto. His goal is to help the prawns get home providing they can help change him back into his human self.
All through District 9, Blomkamp provides the mechanics of an exciting adventure story, but the picture isn’t terribly exciting to watch. The action might be technically impressive but the picture is ugly and impersonal because the characters are no more than stock genre types. You get the feeling that Blomkamp’s picture would work better in a shorter form because the film’s meaning gets sized up quickly in its concept. (Peter Jackson, who produced District 9, was impressed with Blomkamp’s short film treatment of the story called Alive in Joburg.) The director tries to broaden his story by providing little sub-plots about Wikus’s pining for his grieving wife, or featuring a wise scientist prawn’s mentoring his young son, yet there are no epiphanies reached in these moments. They nothing more than recycled and tired clichés from apocalyptic B-movies.
District 9 succeeds as a technical challenge more than anything else. Since the battle scenes between the creatures and the humans are believably effective, the movie will likely satisfy the SF techno-fans. But the movie has such a ripe and irresistible premise that the rest of us will probably feel deprived of something more. District 9 is a science-fiction adventure story without a vision.