Neill Blomkamp's brilliant debut District 9 signals the arrival of a game-changer for a science fiction genre getting more childish by the summer. Blomkamp is emerging from practically nowhere, appearing ready to go anywhere creative that he wishes. • District 9 is a stunner, pure and simple. It's an alien vs. earthlings flick unlike Transformers or Independence Day because Blomkamp invests a popcorn premise with meaningful allegory. The aliens in District 9 aren't demanding to be taken to our leader. They don't have the annihilation of humans in mind, or sugary friendships.
If not for running out of spaceship fuel, they wouldn't even be here. But fear ignited by a mile-wide mothership parked over Johannesburg places alien fates in trembling human hands. If we know anything from history, it's that fear of anyone who doesn't look, speak or behave like "us" leads to trouble.
Polishing the you-are-there video approach that The Blair Witch Project introduced a decade ago (and Cloverfield flubbed), Blomkamp constantly makes the fantastic seem temporarily possible. District 9 is presented as an after-the-fact documentary, confidently presented as if viewers know where the story is heading. Be assured that you don't, except during subsequent viewings that such an eye-popper demands.
The movie's Johannesburg setting (also Blomkamp's hometown) obviously makes District 9 an apartheid allegory. Marooned aliens — dubbed with the epithet "Prawns" for their crustacean appearance — were banished to District 9, which eroded into a junkyard ghetto. Humans nearby complained loud enough to force the government to relocate the aliens 200 miles away. Doing it legally requires each Prawn to sign a waiver.
Enter the hero, bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), whose deluded sense of importance and lacking capability recalls Steve Carell's character on The Office. We know very early that something dark happens to Wikus; one witness calls it a tragedy, another calls it treason.
Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell concoct a quest arc for Wikus too textured to spoil entirely. But he'll be forced to walk a few miles in the Prawns' shoes, ostracized from the human race yet unable to safely fit into District 9. Wikus becomes a man without a planet, realizing the worst of both species and doing something about it.
But District 9 isn't merely a leaden social fable. As gory amusement, it's in the same slaughterhouse as the earliest films of Peter Jackson, lord of the Rings trilogy, which isn't coincidence. Jackson hand-picked Blomkamp to direct a big-screen version of the Halo video game series. When that project fell through, Jackson backed District 9, based on Blomkamp's short film, Alive in Joburg.
The rest will be history someday, if this terrific film is any indication of Blomkamp's imagination and ingenuity. District 9 grabs viewers from first frame to last, not only with viscera but genuine intelligence that's rare in any genre these days.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.