Not as smart as it wants to be but much cleverer than it could have been, District 9 is a kind of gross-out laboratory of sociologically-minded science fiction tropes updated for the post-Cloverfield generation. A first-contact scenario that eschews angelic choirs and glowing wonder for muddy corruption, the film threads enough thoughtful commentary into its whirligig media-fractured action plot to mostly make up for its lapses into cliché. Article continues below
Bravely set far from the usual Hollywood stomping grounds -- in Johannesburg, South Africa -- District 9 imagines the city in an alternate pseudo-present where an alien mothership has been quietly, mysteriously hovering overhead for some two decades. A faux news documentary opening relates how the ship came to rest in the sky, going on to describe the eventual resettlement of its starving and confused alien passengers into the teeming titular refugee camp below. In the film's present, humanity has moved past the thrill of first contact as well as its own generosity and settled into full-on speciesist hatred for the creepy and baffling shellfish-looking creatures derisively nicknamed "prawns."
The closest thing the film has to a protagonist is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, doing a good David Thewlis impersonation), a befuddled employee of MNU, the massive corporation contracted to run things in District 9. There only because of nepotism (his wife's father runs the company), the sad-sack, terminally sweater-vested Wikus is put in charge of a huge MNU operation to relocate the District's aliens from their squalid camp to a brand-new one, hundreds of kilometers out of town. Many don't want to go. The operation itself, captured in jittery verite fashion, hums with uncomfortably recognizable hints of apartheid-era township riots, while later battle scenes evoke even more modern memories of Fallujah and Mogadishu (albeit by way of Robocop and Robotech).
District 9 takes on a more conspiratorial hue once the hapless Wikus accidentally sprays himself with a strange fluid from a canister he finds in one alien's shack. As his body starts erupting with strange fluids and transforming in shape, his employers (who have been trying desperately to figure out how to use confiscated alien weaponry, which only seem to operate via the extra-terrestrials' DNA) discover a horrific new use for the boss's son-in-law. A Cronenbergian interest in disintegrating and mutating bodies amps up the film's disgust factor and lends a cathartic element to the running gunfights that pile up in the film's later sections.
Director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp (he expanded the film from a 2005 short, Alive in Joburg) works overtime to layer the film in the trappings of new millennial strife, as transmitted by nonstop cable news. The refugee camp is a familiar African sprawl of rusted sheet metal shacks and fields of garbage. The aliens squat there in misery, fenced off from the rest of the world and preyed upon by Nigerian gangsters who exploit their inexplicable addiction to cat food. There isn't even a hint of responsible governance in this landscape where the shaky rule of law is enforced by MNU's mercenaries, whose white-painted armored vehicles suggest an ironic dig at the United Nations. The references come fast and thick, sometimes too much so. It's hard for the viewer to successfully identify with any of the people (or aliens, for that matter) on screen.
Relatively low-budget for the impressively epic scope that it delivers ($30 million by some accounts, no doubt vouchsafed by the film's producer, Peter Jackson), District 9 has an admirably grungy, guerilla aesthetic about it that keeps the script's darker overtones from getting too oppressive. With its cast of South African unknowns and a story that's less insterested in crowd-pleasing set pieces than blatant socio-political analogies (to tribal warfare, corporate greed, racism, and even genocide), it also shows a willingness to use genre tactics for more serious purposes, rather than just as an end in themselves.