Maybe it does take the name of a Hollywood name like Peter Jackson to catapult a non-Hollywood science fiction movie like District 9 into the awareness of international critics and viewers, but so much the better. This is one movie that deserves the hype that is currently building up around it.
District 9 tells, in mock-documentary style, the story of a middle-management operative, Wikus van der Merwe, who is pushed into the leading role of evacuating over a million aliens from District 9, the shantytown camp near Johannesburg, where the creatures have been held since appearing in a giant derelict space craft some twenty years ago. As Wikus leads the operation with a mixture of bureaucratic correctness and utter despise for the insect-like creatures, he becomes exposed to a chemical substance from the space craft and from then on slowly mutates into one of the creatures himself; whereupon he finds himself being a prisoner of his employer for the very reason that his altered DNA can trigger the alien weapons which a human cannot. What follows is a story told before, of a man who becomes what he despises most, and ends up having to ally with his former enemies against his former allies.
The story, written and directed by South African born Neill Blomkamp, is an obvious allegory of his country's apartheid past, and possibly also a comment on the xenophobic riots from a couple of years ago which left several migrant workers from South Africa's neighbouring countries killed by an angry mob. The use of a pseudo-documentary style is convenient for showing how far ingrained the racism towards the aliens has become in humans, with little or no sympathy being shown for the creatures throughout all the strata of human society. In this, I was reminded of the treatment that Romanian gypsies currently receive in many European countries, where media, right-wing politicians and un-reflected hearsay contribute to a deep but vague feeling of antipathy, accompanied by openly racist legislation in a number of EU countries, towards this 'alien' people right in our midst.
With its tight plotting, the movie manages to generate a feeling of unease that it does not relent throughout most of its duration, although some of it is mitigated through the cathartic shoot-out at the end. Wikus's mutation into an insect-like alien is highly reminiscent of David Cronenberg's The Fly; I found this not the only similarity to Cronenberg's movies - the said sense of unease and the slightly surreal, claustrophobic atmosphere are other common traits.
I also liked the fact the aliens were truly that - alien - for pretty much most of the film. Despite the human names the aliens were given, the creatures shared very few human traits - apart maybe from a certain gluttony. Again, towards the end, a movie-typical father(?)-son relationship ends up humanising the main alien character, as does the apparent bonding between Wikus and the alien. The last half hour of the movie is why I do not give the movie a 5/5 rating: despite being very entertaining (certainly to science fiction fans), the ending lets in a few of the Hollywood stereotypes that the movie was consistent enough to avoid until then. It can be argued that plot devices like the alien father/son subplot or the human/alien bonding help in bringing the movie's message home, but I think that it somewhat reduces the impact of a movie that for the most part remained intense because it remained different.
Finally, it should also be added that the movie's production is of great quality. Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop and Weta Digital companies have created top-notch special effects, and the aliens are certainly some of the best CGI creatures on celluloid. Also, as humans and aliens alike are variously blown or torn to pieces in very graphic detail, the film is not for the squeamish.
In summary, District 9 is one of the best science fiction movies of the last years, and does what sci-fi does best, i.e. use the fantastic and the futuristic to reflect upon human nature in the here and now.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.