district9_poster-689x1024District 9 isn’t the movie of the year but it still has a lot going for it. The premise, for one, is captivating and the opening act that covers the set-up and backstory is arguably the best bit of the movie.

It seems in 1985 or so, an alien spaceship arrived in Johannesburg and hovered about for a bit. After three months of exclusive hovering and with not an alien to be seen, the South African authorities lose their patience and cut their way in. What they find inside is a severly malnourished and diseased population of aliens that they bring down to earth to treat, housing them in a refugee camp (the District 9 of the title) that quickly descends into a slum. The South Africans don’t really like the aliens too much, grow to hate them and then twenty years after the big disc arrived in their skies, they eventually hatch a plan to shift them out of Johnnaesburg into what would essentially be a concentration camp.

The nods to apartheid and nazism aren’t even vaguely concealed but it remains an intriguing what-if scenario, told in mock documentary style in a very convincing manner that made me come to the conclusion that real-life would probably be played out in such a depressing manner.

During the intro, we meet the main character — Wikus Van Der Merwe — who, through nepotism, lands the plum job of evicting the aliens from District 9. Wilkus talks to the camera, still in mockumentary mode — as he serves eviction notices to the extraterrestial refugees, with a huge military presence behind him. This is a very claustrophobic phase of the film. The mothership constantly hovers over the city in hazy blue sky. It suppresses the people below it and it’s everywhere … there’s no escape … and that feel is powerfully done aided no doubt by some nauseating shaky hand held camera work, that while nothing new, still increases the unease.

All too soon, though, director and screenwriter Neill Blomkamp abandons the documentary style and, in a rather confused transition, it becomes a more usual narrative driven story. It becomes a fugitive movie for a while and then when  it seems there’s nowhere for it to go other than into buddy action movie territory, that’s precisely where it goes. The last fifteen minutes feel like they belong more in Rambo than in the intelligent movie this seemed to be at the start and by the time it attempts to close back in documentary style, it’s all too late. I’m erasing the Wall-E moment at the very end from my memory.

Although largely entertaining, I was distracted a number of times at the nods to other movies. Oh, that’s the something out of something, I’d often think. For example, Oh, that’s the ED-209 out of Robocop. Or, Oh, that’s the camerawork out of Cloverfield. And I’m starting to think that people have forgotten how to tell a story in an hour-and-a-half. As an aside, Funny People, which I was contemplating going to see tonight, tips the scales at a bewildering 146 minutes. Do they think it’s The Deer Hunter?

So, overall, District 9 is a decent sci-fi movie that would probably have been better if it hadn’t tried to be clever and aragorical and get my hopes up. Or it could’ve kept to its initial ideals, abandoned the My Buddy’s An Alien nonsense and been awesome.

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