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Some stories hinge on a dramatic juncture in human history. Some are guided by a need to delve into the intricacies of relationships and emotions. Others are grand allegories aiming to reveal more about the human condition or the universe. Some are epic.
The bulk, I imagine, are spawned from a single image or simple scenario, with all the trappings of a plot added later.
What if a massive wave capsized a luxury liner? Imagine a guy who can instantly teleport himself anywhere he imagines. Wouldn’t it be funny if a presidential election hinged on the vote of a single guy?
It’s not at all surprising that from South Africa we get this scenario: Imagine aliens have come to Earth and we segregate them in slummy camps. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants?
For South Africans, maybe District 9 is. No one on earth will be able to process this movie in the same way as residents of that country, which for decades enforced the most brutal racial-segregationist policies on the planet.
For those of us on the outside, District 9 can at times be a little uncomfortable. After all, apartheid as sci-fi entertainment can seem flippant. Watching white South African actors play characters whose seething hatred for the segregated aliens is downright psychotic leaves you wondering if this plays well with South African audiences, who may recall or accept that this was how apartheid-era security forces managed the black townships. Perhaps South Africans, of any race, are used to these images, but it may be difficult for others to wrap their heads around characters’ motivations at times.
The trappings added to this sort of parallel-universe picture of township residents as aliens are also a little oblique.
First, a giant saucer comes to Earth, apparently losing momentum over Johannesburg, where it floats in perpetuity. The malnourished and meek aliens inside may be slaves or otherwise victims of whoever built or ran this ship. Regardless, the million or so aliens the humans discover don’t appear to have much wherewithal. Or maybe they do — it’s really hard to tell. But they’re brought to the surface and everything turns to shit. The primary cause of the aliens’ sad lives seems to be that humans won’t let them leave, as there’s technology to be harvested. The human just can’t figure out how to use it. A huge plot device seems to hinge on one alien — far more civilized than his camp counterparts, those willing to knock a human’s head off his shoulders for nary a trespass — getting back to the mother ship. While you’re watching District 9, you may wonder why he didn’t opt for stealing a helicopter.
Director Neill Blomkamp takes us through shades of Cloverfield (shaky, hand-held documentary), Alien Nation (Aliens and humans can overcome interspecies prejudice, yay!), The Fly (Why are my fingernails popping off?), and even a touch of Transformers (When I wear this suit, I look like a robot — who is kicking ass!). There’s a lot going on.
If you look closely, though, what really stands out is Sharlto Copley’s acting. As Wikus Van De Merwe, a sad-sack bureaucrat who spends more than two-thirds of the movie being a completely unsympathetic protagonist, Copley absolutely nails his character. As the eager, not-so-bright loser, to the terrified victim of a kooky metamorphosis, to genuinely loving husband, Copley delivers the goods. Rarely would an actor have to present a character thrown into so many disparate situations, but through all these twists and turns, Copley makes Van De Merwe utterly believable.
District 9 is supposed to be a bang-up summertime thrill ride, and on that score, audiences get their money’s worth. If it’s a variety of exotic, handheld weapons you’re after, you’ve come to the right place — particularly if you want them to shoot a body-exploding bolt of lightning.
Go for the guns and for Copley’s performance. Don’t try to iron out the plot or worry about a meaningful message on apartheid. The Nigerian warlord? Take him or leave him. And the setup for the sequel should absolutely be ignored. It’s far more likely that Copley and his newfound fame will have moved on to other projects.