District 9

The first sign that something is unusual about “District 9” is that when the aliens arrive, they don’t land in New York or L.A. or any of the other metropolises that sci-fi movies usually have them land in, but Johannesburg, South Africa. You wonder: Is there a thematic reason for this? Or is the filmmaker, Neill Blomkamp, just paying homage to his hometown?

Turns out it’s both, actually. Blomkamp is ultimately more interested in having fun than sending a message, but the film’s basic scenario is clearly a reference to Johannesburg’s legacy of apartheid, and can also be seen as a metaphor for illegal immigration in America. The aliens arrive malnourished and desperate, and the South African government feels a humanitarian need to help them. But as time passes — 20 years from their arrival until the present — the aliens become disruptive and are shuffled into slums, segregated from the people and treated as less-than-human because, well, they are. There’s even an ethnic slur for them: “prawns,” because they resemble six-foot-tall shrimps.

The parallels aren’t exact, of course. With apartheid, the “aliens” were there first and didn’t have to be rescued; and while it’s clever to use the term “illegal alien” in a science-fiction sense, the comparisons to immigration are mostly shallow. After all, there’s no good reason not to want humans of a different race living among us, but there are plenty of legitimate concerns about unknown extra-terrestrial species.

The real-life applications of “District 9” fade away in the film’s second half; by the time it’s over, you may have forgotten there ever was an apartheid analogy. Perhaps coincidentally — but perhaps not — the second half is also when the story plateaus. Even without ever having relied heavily on the messages, Blomkamp seems to lose focus once the story breaks away from them altogether. What now? the film seems to ask, before answering itself with Well, now the guy operates a big Transformer-size alien robot. Because hey, why not?

But I have gotten ahead of myself. Blomkamp, a first-time feature director expanding on a short he made in 2005, starts off brilliantly, positioning “District 9” as a TV documentary about the aliens. News footage and talking-head interviews, all realistically faked (here’s where it’s handy to have a cast of unknown actors), fill us in on the backstory much faster than traditional narrative methods could have done, and give the film an eerie aura of realism besides.

All of this is leading up to the current situation: After 20 years of an uneasy relationship with the prawns, the government is going to relocate them from District 9 to a better facility (read: different slum) where they’ll be more comfortable (read: farther away from the humans). A military contractor called Multi-National United has been hired to handle the relocation, and the documentary crew follows MNU pencil-pusher Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) as he and his team go shack-to-shack in District 9 informing the aliens of their eviction.

Whatever Johannesburg’s original intentions might have been, District 9 has now become a wretched hive of scum and villainy. The aliens live in squalor and do not seem particularly bright or industrious, even for their species. Nigerian scam artists moved in quickly and established numerous rackets to take advantage of the prawns. Inter-species prostitution is an ongoing problem. (Flaws notwithstanding, any movie that uses the term “inter-species prostitution” is OK by me). Still, the aliens are generally deferential to the humans, having a respect for authority — or, perhaps, lacking the initiative to question it.

It’s during the shack-to-shack visits that Wikus is exposed to an alien substance that one of the prawns, called Johnson, has been collecting for reasons not yet explained to us. This substance, as you might guess, has an ill effect on Wikus. (We note that interviews with Wikus’ family members early in the film ominously refer to him in the past tense.) Soon enough Wikus is on the run from the government while seeking to collaborate with Johnson on a shared goal.

Blomkamp (who wrote the screenplay with Terri Tatchell) gradually abandons the documentary format, with almost all traces of it gone by the time Wikus becomes infected. Eventually, most of what made the premise intriguing to begin with has given way to more ordinary sci-fi devices — which, I hasten to add, Blomkamp uses very well. But it’s disappointing that he resorts to such pedestrian tactics after showing so much innovation in the beginning. Casting a non-actor with so little screen presence in the lead role — and then making that character selfish and mildly loathsome — doesn’t help keep a viewer’s interest, either.

But even with a second half that’s significantly less compelling than the first, “District 9” earns points for its seamless special effects and its subtle but pointed sense of humor. It creates a fictional world that’s vivid and believable, allowing us to be caught up in the excitement and suspense for a while, before the novelty wears off and we wonder where the story went. It’s a promising directorial debut, but I suspect Blomkamp can do better.

B- (1 hr., 52 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, abundant bloody violence.)