Smuggling a strong political allegory under the guise of a scrappy, docu-style science fiction thriller, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 asks a simple question: If an alien spacecraft stalled out over a major city, stranding legions of starving and impoverished creatures, how would humankind respond? Blomkamp, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa under apartheid, imagines a similar arrangement in the same city, with insectoid “others” shuffled off into crime-riddled slums and controlled by a hideous private corporation more concerned with containment than compassion. In a world awash with anti-immigrant fervor, it makes sense that the marvels of an alien race stranded on our faraway planet would be brushed aside to accommodate the fears of earthlings who don’t want these “prawns” to be a drain on their jobs and resources. They don’t even speak English!
Perhaps Blomkamp’s shrewdest conceit is to make a hapless paper-pusher the film’s hero: Sharlto Copley plays a Michael “heckuva job” Brown-type whose well-connected father-in-law secured him a position well above his station at Multi-National United (MNU), the company responsible for alien affairs. After 20 years of keeping the aliens penned up in a shantytown ruled by Nigerian thugs, MNU has decided to shift them to an equally miserable refugee camp further away from the city and puts Copley in charge of the operation. Things don’t go well and they get worse when Copley inhales a foreign fluid that slowly and painfully transforms his body into an alien/human hybrid. That makes him a person of interest for the MNU, because only alien parts can activate the prawns’ arsenal of powerful weapons.
Shooting in the handheld style popularized by Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies and faux-docs like Cloverfield, Blomkamp gives District 9 a ground-level immediacy that amps up the intensity and mimics the feel of a developing TV news story. It also evokes the charming homemade aesthetic of producer Peter Jackson’s early “splat-stick” comedies, like Bad Taste and Dead/Alive, a tack that helps scrape the gloss off the modest (though impressive) effects. Blomkamp doesn’t give a full enough picture of human-alien relations and Copley’s relationship with a prawn and its son edges into sentimentality, but District 9 fuses science fiction mayhem and biting social commentary as well as any film since Starship Troopers. It’s the rare alien invasion story that has the aliens running scared.