District 9 is one hell of a movie.
I knew even less about it going into a screening the other night than I did about Moon before seeing that thoughtful piece of science-fiction cinema, which I reviewed last month. A very broad synopsis of and general thoughts on the film come after the graphic, but those who want to enter the experience totally blind (or at least with no spoilage on my part) should bail out now. The bottom line is that, yes, I'd recommend it, with the caveats that it dragged a bit in the middle, still impressive but not gripping until it re-engaged me in its final act, and that anyone who has difficulty seeing vomiting or viscera will have to avert their eyes on occasion.
Still from District 9 © 2009 District 9 Ltd.
District 9 flew under the radar — an irony, given the massive spacecraft that looms over Johannesburg in the movie — as director Neill Blomkamp shot on location in South Africa with a cast of largely first-time actors asked to improvise much of their dialogue. While produced by celebrated filmmaker Peter Jackson, best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there was little mainstream buzz about D9 until Entertainment Weekly devoted a cover story to what it called "the must-see movie of the summer" in its Aug. 14th issue (out the week before). I decided not to remind myself of anything I might've heard about the movie or learn anything new before I saw it.
Like Moon, the film immerses the audience in its fiction right away, with documentary-style footage that establishes the premise matter-of-factly through voice-overs and characters speaking directly to the camera: The aforementioned spacecraft parked itself over Johannesburg more than two decades ago. After some time spent waiting anxiously but in vain for any sign of communication from the ship, government forces boarded it and discovered over a million aliens — aimless, living in pitiful conditions, apparently cut off from or abandoned by others of their race. They were relocated to a camp called District 9 in a humanitarian gesture, and twenty years later, when the bulk of the film's action takes place, the "prawns" are still there, so called because they resemble giant crustaceans in vaguely humanoid form. Everyone from sociologists to the good ol' military-industrial complex is interested in the aliens, their habits, and their technology, of course, but the overriding public concern a generation after the ship appeared is the aliens' population growth and drain on the state's resources.
District 9 also shares with Moon a mature approach to SF where some situation that's entirely plausible but as yet technologically unattained (in the case of Moon) and/or simply thus far unencountered (D9) is posited as fact, with the question asked, "What might believably happen next?" Moon is, however, on the whole contemplative, though not without without its moments of suspense, whereas D9 is, though not without its moments of reflection, largely kinetic, not to mention possessed of a cast larger than Moon's to the umpteenth degree.
Given its titular setting in a South African ghetto, it's impossible not to see District 9 through the lens of apartheid, but science fiction has dealt with thinly veiled allegory since before Star Trek. The movie needn't be interpreted to be enjoyed as part of a long tradition of alien-encounter flicks, albeit with vastly higher quality acting, writing, and effects work than the creature features that have become a staple of The Sci-Fi Channel, which recently, infamously, awkwardly renamed itself Syfy. For reasons that will be clear to those who've seen it, D9 reminded me in some ways of The Host, a Korean film from a few years back that — while often jarring in its mix of drama and camp (or at least what someone from my perspective, having seen next to zero Korean cinema, interpreted as camp) — provided an innovative spin on the mass-hysteria movie. There's next to no overt comedy in D9, but plenty of found humor in the human, or inhuman, condition.
While my viewing party on the whole gave it raves and one fellow in our row spent almost the entire film literally on the edge of his seat, the movie lost me for a while. I began to admire the fiercely committed performance of the lead actor, the impressive logistics, and the utterly seamless special effects even as I wondered if this wasn't a sort of pulpy genre equivalent to one of those period dramas that I know have impeccable clockwork yet lack actual thrill. Then the somewhat surprising potential endgame emerged and D9 revved up again, not just in terms of actual action but audience investment, even as it went through some predictable generic motions. I haven't actually seen GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra or Transformers: Rise of the Machines, but if you're looking for a rise in the quality of your summer escapism, head to District 9. You'll find awesome weapons, ass-kicking, and insightful alien interaction of the highest order. [There's an update/correction on all this rising in the comments.]