FILM: Imaginative, insightful sci-fi in 'District 9'

September 3, 2009

Once derided as inferior intellectually and artistically, science fiction and horror films have grown into genres where social, political and moral issues can be explored in profound yet compelling terms. Movies as diverse as Night of the Living Dead and Wall-E provide powerful insights into what we humans are and the mysterious, even divine, nature of the universe.

The late-summer science-fiction hit District 9 has been a terrific surprise, and not just to mass audiences appreciative of its exciting, authentically crafted portrayal of an alien civilization dumped into a modern-day urban hellhole and forced to fight back. More thoughtful viewers will also be intrigued by its politically inspired and often despairing yet ultimately hopeful portrait of how mankind must be continually persuaded to see itself in, and thus come to embrace, the outsiders among us.

District 9 focuses on bumbling corporate drone Wikus (Sharito Copley), who in a triumph of nepotism has been selected to lead the relocation of millions of the aliens (known as "prawns" for their tentacles and claws), which became stranded in South Africa 30 years ago and since have been relegated to a ghetto outside Johannesburg. The slum is intended by director Neill Blomkamp to resemble a Soweto-like township from the days of apartheid, though in this world the black Africans loathe and exploit the aliens as much as the whites.

Wikus is clearly in over his head during the film's humorous, documentary-like opening. But one of writer/director Blomkamp's strengths involves how he subverts our expectations; when he's exposed to the aliens' DNA, Wikus goes from comic buffoon to tragic figure, then becomes a believably obsessed action movie protagonist and ultimately a true hero willing not just to fight but to sacrifice for the good of others he once scorned.

Blomkamp has made a classic thriller that doesn't stint on violence (audiences should be aware that the language is also for adult sensibilities). But the bloodletting here isn't gratuitous – it's intended to remind us what happens when corporate and other powerbrokers allow the desire for profits to obliterate compassion and how the victims of ruthlessness and violence often see no choice but to respond in kind. And District 9 ends on a tone that undercuts the violence and rage that have come before it – a note of Christian hope where Wikus and the aliens await a savior (or his son) to deliver freedom and redemption.

For those willing to stick with the film despite some intensely brutal scenes and images, District 9 is genuinely rewarding. By exploring the line between what we consider human and inhuman, Blomkamp asks us to question our preconceptions of good and evil and reminds us that the most noble behavior can be found in those we may dismiss as the most hideous.

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