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'District 9' full of surprises

Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009

The first trailer I saw for "District 9" threw me for a loop. For the first 45 seconds it appears to be some sort of documentary about unwelcome United States presence in Africa. Except that at the 45-second mark, it is revealed the "they" is not Americans - it's aliens.

Yeah, that they.

Even at that point, though, the previews were mysterious. Still, I thought I had more or less wrapped my head around the concept when I strolled into 20th Century downtown on Monday night. From what I had gathered, there were aliens that had arrived in South Africa and for some reason we humans were refusing to let them leave. Then something bad happens and we have a war on our hands. Something like that.

Nope.

"District 9" surprised me with its first trailer; it surprised me even further with the actual content of the film. It was nothing like what I had pieced together in my mind. About all I had right was that there were aliens and they were hanging out in South Africa. The rest of the story of "District 9" is a bizarre mixture of all kinds of themes, some of it hard to swallow and some if it quite compelling. "District 9," no matter what your opinion might be overall, though, is never uninteresting.

Writer, director Neill Blomkamp (an apparent discovery of Lord Peter Jackson) does some unique things visually from the very beginning. There's a reason the trailers projected "documentary;" Blomkamp uses an in-movie film crew to introduce us to the movie's hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). So there are plenty of documentary-style moments, but Blomkamp is wise enough not to overuse the technique. Instead he sprinkles it in here or there, maximizing its impact. Blomkamp also uses security footage, conceivably from various security cameras around Johannesburg, to add another visual wrinkle. Finally, and it should go without saying, the special effects are quite good and in use from start to finish.

Special effects become necessary, of course, when half of your cast is made up of "prawns" (the derogatory term we humans use to refer to the aliens). The prawns are crucial, obviously, to whether or not you can enjoy "District 9." They're also what I had the hardest time swallowing in the opening moments of the movie. Blomkamp doesn't wait long to thrust the entire premise of "District 9" right into your face. These prawns arrive in Johannesburg in the early 80s, only nothing happens.

Nothing.

Their ship just hovers silently over the city. We finally decide to cut our way into the ship and when we do, we discover masses of these prawns seemingly stuck inside and on the verge of starving to death. Our solution is to transfer them to the terrain below and set up a temporary camp. Temporary turns into two decades and the camp becomes a slum. Present day Johannesburg, then, features a huge slum in the middle of the city where the prawns are forced to live in horrible conditions and are kept segregated as much as possible from humans. That's just the tip of the iceberg as far as the tale that soon intertwines Wikus and the prawns.

I suspect segregation is an important word - and theme - in Blomkamp's mind. I'm not deep enough to worry about underlying messages in a sci-fi film, though.

If you can accept the far-out concept at the start, "District 9" will never bore you.

The trailer had me thinking about what might come; the movie has me thinking about what might come next.

★★ ½



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