The setup for "District 9" is ingeniously simple: More than 20 years earlier, an alien ship appeared above Johannesburg, South Africa, and nearly 2 million aliens were discovered inside. Their appearance—something between crustaceans and grasshoppers—earns them the nickname "prawns," and the fear and disgust of humans keeps the interlopers relegated to a camp. This is all explained quickly in the opening minutes of the film, which intersperses fake documentary footage with newscasts—a device that works at times and is completely abandoned at others. The plot kicks off when a private corporation known as MNU decides to move the aliens to a new camp and appoints a bumbling field operative named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copely) to head the operation.
Much has been made of the film's originality, the excellent special effects—its budget was a relatively modest $30 million—and the story's reflection of current issues of immigration and racism. But attention should also be paid to Copely, a childhood friend of Blomkamp, making his feature debut as Wikus, who finds himself on the run from his own company after contracting an alien virus. Casting unknowns in all the roles helps to feed the realistic tone and works particularly well in the case of Wikus, as his fate is in real jeopardy—something you would never question if, say, Brad Pitt were playing the lead. Copely is outstanding—believable at first as an unqualified doofus who lands the assignment because his father-in-law runs the corporation, then morphs into a hero. Playing a man who wants nothing more than to get back to his adoring wife—excellently played by Vanessa Haywood—Copely is a star discovery.
Credit must also be given to Jason Cope, who portrays the alien Christopher, Wikus' unlikely ally. Though Christopher is able to communicate only through a series of clicks and grunts and is encased in an alien suit (brilliantly designed by Blomkamp and Jackson's WETA Workshop), Cope's movement and actions create a believable character with as much dimension as the human ones. Maybe more.
There are minor plot holes—how did the alien weapons ever make it to earth?—and the blending of faux broadcasts with a traditional narrative doesn't always work, but there is no doubt that Blomkamp is an artist of startling talent and originality. It's also refreshing that, as skilled as he is at directing action, he pays equal attention to drawing compelling performances from his actors. It's unusual for a film of this genre, and it's one of several factors that set "District 9" apart from the crowd.
Genre: Science Fiction.
Written by: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell.
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp.
Starring: Sharlto Copely, Jason Cope, Vanessa Haywood