*District 9 (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
It's not that there isn't a clear weight of genre history behind Neill Blomkamp's astonishing feature debut; District 9 nods to everything from David Cronenberg's The Fly to Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop, from Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II to Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down.
It's that even as half my brain was acknowledging those nods with a film geek's appreciation, the other half of my brain was floored that this could all still feel so fresh. It's like those optical illusions where your eyes keep switching from seeing the women in profile to seeing the fancy vase: District 9 is simultaneously brilliantly innovative and profoundly indebted to the cinema that inspired it.
I know — Black Hawk Down ain't really a genre film. But in many ways, the lack of artifice of D9 owes much to that military action flick. (And it's not at all like the 1988 flick Alien Nation, even if, at the surface, D9 appears to be aping it.)
Watching D9 is not so much like watching a movie as it is like watching the news: Blomkamp — who co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell, based on his short film Alive in Jo'burg — opens with "documentary" footage of bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who's excited about his new job. He'll be heading up the massive task of relocating more than 1 million otherworldly refugees living in District 9, a ghetto outside Johannesburg to another, well, ghetto further outside the city. Intercut with that are "news reports" of violence erupting and interviews with human citizens who insist the aliens have to leave.
I can't say that the aliens — tall, insect-like creatures derogatorily called "prawns" — are exactly an afterthought in Blomkamp's vision, but the way he treats them is so matter-of-fact that they become a taken-for-granted aspect of this alternate vision of the world in 2010. There's none of the fantastical imagery or whimsy that we typically get from sci-fi movies: The camera does not linger over the stuff it thinks is cool hoping to get you to drop your jaw. You will anyway, but it won't be forced.
The details causally thrown in are what layer this world in rock-solid realism. The company Van De Merwe works for, MNU, has been handling alien affairs for years — it's also the planet's second-biggest weapons manufacturer and would love to figure out how to make the aliens' guns work. (You need prawn DNA to do that, and the aliens themselves don't seem interested; the survivors are all drones and literally directionless without their dead leadership.)
Van De Merwe himself is a master of bureaucratic whitewashery, and yet he is not a caricature — newcomer Copley's performance is breathtakingly good — and when his task in District 9 takes a bad turn, he blossoms into something unexpected. At the same point, Blomkamp ratchets up the intimacy. In one startling moment, he drops from his mockumentary style into an omniscient narrative mode. It's as if we are drawn fully into this world just as Van De Merwe learns it's so much more than he ever anticipated, too.
And we're hooked. I had the distinct sense that I'd never seen a science fiction movie before this one, it's so perfectly convincing. How could it not be? The world in the film may have a slightly different recent history, but this is our world, beset by the same dark impulses of greed, bigotry and delusion.