District 9

  District 9
  Sharlto Copley, David James, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt,

  4 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

"District 9" isn't your run of the mill aliens invade earth with bad intent sci-fi thriller. It's in a district all by itself. For one thing it takes place in Johannesburg instead of New York, Los Angeles or some other city that thinks it's the center of the universe. How many sci-fi movies can you name that take place in South Africa? "District 9" also mirrors the nasty, racially-charged undercurrents of Apartheid, with aliens being treated like second class vermin. In most sci-fi films humans are either inferior in strength or intellect, and in other flicks we're just lunch. In "District 9" mankind has the upper hand and we're using it to repeatedly bitch slap a needy species.

The aliens are referred to as "prawns," a disparaging reference to their resemblance to a surf and turf special minus the turf. The shrimp-meets-cockroach aliens have been stranded on earth for the past twenty years, their crippled spaceship hovering silently above Johannesburg. We're told the prawns' sorry situation sprang from a malfunction that damaged their ship's engines, followed by a biological epidemic that killed the intelligent commanding officers, leaving the inferior worker bee subordinates to fend for themselves. Starving, diseased and marooned, the remaining prawns were rescued by humans, who segregated them in a crime-ridden section of Johannesburg, where they were preyed upon by Nigerian gangsters. In order to survive, the prawns now trade the weapons they salvaged from their ship for cat food. (I'm not sure if its shrimp flavored.) The weapons, which are organic, can only be fired by the prawns. Obesandjo, the wheelchair bound leader of the Nigerian gang, is convinced there's a way he can adapt his broken body so he can fire the weapons. Unfortunately for the prawns, Obesandjo believes that the best way to become a prawn is to eat one, so he frequently murders the prawns he deals with in the hope of literally chewing up their technology. And even worse for the prawns - unbeknownst to everyone but a handful of high security honchos, Multinational United (MNU), a government agency, has been experimenting on kidnapped prawns, trying to develop their own method of integrating the alien technology into the human body.
After 20 years of trying to co-exist with the prawns, the citizens of Johannesburg have grown tired of being mugged and watching the shellfish scavenger's root through garbage dumps. The government announces its moving all 1.8 million prawns to a new facility -- yes, unsubtle shades of high security concentration camps/gulags follow. MNU Director Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar, slithering successfully through his role) puts his son-in-law, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, perfectly playing an unsuspecting dupe) in charge of the move, setting him up to either be a modern day massa or an incompetent fall guy.

Rather than root through the refuse for Friskies, one of the prawns, Christopher Johnson (considered smarter than the others and worth watching), has spent two decades salvaging computer components. He's been distilling a liquid that will fire up the engines of the damaged ship and take his people home, but when Wikus knocks on his door, demanding he relocate, the forced evacuation drastically changes everyone's plans. When Wikus accidentally comes in contact with the liquid and begins to morph into a prawn his world is turned inside out. The pursuer becomes the pursued - Frankenstein chased by the villagers. MNU wants to see if a man infused with alien DNA can fire the prawn's weaponry - and Obesandjo wants him as an entrée for the same reason. Wikus is forced to live like a prawn, negotiating for cat food, running from government agents eager to dissect him. In order to find a cure for his encroaching metamorphosis and send Charlie home, he forms an uneasy alliance a creature he'd persecuted only days before.

Copley gives a wide-ranging performance. In the film's early scenes he's a smug pawn, an incompetent boob lucky to have married well. He's clueless about his father-in-law's capacity for self-preservation and dear ol' daddy's desire to make his daughter a widow. Wikus' marriage is his only success, and as he morphs into a prawn, it's the one thing that keeps him alive. Wikus goes from being a hard-headed, hard-hearted hump to a sympathetic soft-shelled soul who sees the light, and Copley is brilliant in conveying his transformation. Given its Copley's first acting role, I can't wait to see what he does next.

Square-jawed, maniacal Piet Smit masks his hatred of Wikus' devotion to his beloved daughter, tossing him on the trash heap the first chance he gets. Louis Minnaar does a lot with a character that's mostly a sneer and a heart of lead. As Colonel Koobus Venter, the sadistic head of the military arm in charge of relocating the prawns, David James accurately captures the black heart of a mercenary who loves his work too much, bumping off prawns like pawns in a game of chess. Awash with voodoo undertones, planted in a wheelchair and brandishing a perpetually crazed look, Eugene Khumbanyiwa marinates in a role that requires him to play a nutty Nigerian determined to play God.

The prawns aren't very scary; they really do look like they stepped out of a Red Lobster menu. (Jason Cope, who plays the dual roles of a reporter and Christopher Johnson) developed their clickity-clackity language, a combination of Nigerian and Helen Keller mumbling that gets a bit obtrusive at times (don't worry, there are subtitles) but serves to make the prawns look more human than their flesh and blood counterparts.

There are a number of entertaining comedic moments, such as Wikus' encounter with an upchucking prawn, or watching him bumble through his delusional role as a conquering hero. The special effects are at least a nine as well, especially the scene in which Wikus dons a robot tank suit and battles Colonel Ventor's genocidal G.I.'s, or the sickening sight of MNU's laboratory, a crustacean chamber of horrors where prawns are iced, sliced and diced.

Although "District 9" is first-rate sci-fi, at the core of the story is a theme that audiences will identify with. Wikus is a misguided man facing his petty prejudices who wants nothing more than to return to the arms of his loving wife - and there's nothing alien about that.

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