Neill Blomkamp's feature debut District 9 isn't the sort of summer sci-fi we're used to seeing, or the kind we can hope to see again soon. It's maybe even quite different from what you are expecting from it, after a typical season of asinine flash. This is challenging science fiction, steeped in Big Ideas, but it's never turgid or heavy-handed, as serious sci-fi can be. It's also a witty, balls-out thriller, and a dark horse among the year's finest films.
District 9's marketing campaign has been inspired in its tactics but also so uncommonly kind as to obscure everything but the broad strokes of the concept, a favor I won't correct here. The film begins in—and occasionally falls cleanly back to—documentary style, filling us in on the recent history of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was over Johannesburg, nearly 30 years ago, that a giant spacecraft slowed to a stop and humankind made first contact with a stalled, starving mass of insectoid aliens now referred to as the prawns.
District 9, a temporary prawn settlement in the shadow of their ship, has long since devolved into a slum, dangerous and socially isolated from the rest of the city, the human inhabitants of which have grown to hate and ignore their unwanted guests. As the narrative gears up, dim bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been assigned to oversee the prawns' eviction and relocation from District 9 to a government internment camp. It escalates, of course, from there.
Extraterrestrials living marginalized within human society don't make for particularly groundbreaking sci-fi allegory, and District 9 doesn't pretend to add anything new to the playbook. It is nonetheless effective, as Blomkamp slyly avoids engaging the concept on obvious or unnecessary levels; just as the South African backdrop evokes racial discord, a shantytown full of disenfranchised bug-fish things proves better utilized as setting than story. Blomkamp isn't preoccupied with direct correlation to apartheid or anything else, and the movie achieves a certain subversiveness as a result. Its events are fantasy, but their context is a cluster of uneasy truths we understand without stopping to believe.
The story, then, is free to do what it likes, and the result will be a genuine crowd-pleaser to most eyes. Blomkamp ignores the rote, ruined pacing of common action films, which stumble around awkwardly in between clockwork set-pieces; instead, there is tension, release, and spectacle with purpose here. The proceedings are visceral and gory where they need to be, but there are also striking moments of humor and humanity, all rooted in the relatively confined scope of the narrative, which simply trails Wikus van der Merwe through the three most eventful days of his life. That it is, in this sense, a character piece somehow only enhances the role of mech suits and goo-ifying death rays.
And oh, the goo! Producer Peter Jackson's storied WETA Workshop provides District 9 with some of the most sophisticated CG in recent memory, bringing the prawns and their unnerving obsession with cat food to full life through a shifting aesthetic—and also serving up some righteous alien weaponry. There are elements here and there betraying the influence of video games, but by now that's unavoidable. (Jackson and Blomkamp have been actively developing a Halo film for several years, and it would be a great surprise if District 9's weekend success didn't finally clear the path.) There are also echoes of Paul Greengrass, David Cronenberg, and sweetly nutty '80s sci-fi. What's important is that Blomkamp is able to bind his visuals to the world he's established, and to the characters he's focused on. This confidence may be District 9's defining trait.
Again, the film is a bit more challenging—and certainly less star-studded—than the rest of this summer's offerings, and its coy promotion may lure in audiences who react indifferently or worse. (Genre fans, on the other hand, are in for an invigorating treat, and likely a swelling of the ranks.) But hopefully the ideas will come across either way. Like Duncan Jones' lower-profile Moon, District 9 is a refreshingly mature work of speculative fiction, fixated on ethical issues that seem far off but can teach us about ourselves in the meantime. Who knew the heavy stuff could be so fun?