District 9 posterGreen lightDebut feature filmmaker Neill Blomkamp proves there is much ET life left in the well-worn genre of aliens-on-earth movies with District 9, a convention-bending SCI-FI romp that frames pulse-pounding action inside an allegorical context. A massive UFO hovers ominously over Johannesburg, South Africa, but this ain’t Independance Day. There are no lasers aimed at the buildings below and no reason to whoop ET’s ass. They haven’t come to invade but they haven’t exactly come to chew the fat either.

The aliens in District 9 are derogatorily dubbed “prawns” (due to their physical resemblance) and are desperate and impoverished, living in the titular cordoned off district. It is a lawless and squalid shanty town. Soldiers taunt and abuse them. Organised gangs flog black market weapons and food. Human prostitutes sell interspecies sex.  Insert comment about how this place is no Disneyland.

It is, however, a setting ripe for veiled messages about treating others with empathy and compassion. After watching District 9 it’s hard not to draw connections to xenophobia or apartheid because Blomkamp’s allegories are as subtle as a whack in the face with a sock full of pennies. His “monsters” are used as prisms to reflect our bigotries and phobias back at us. The question is: “who is the real monster, chump?”

The plot follows Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who is in charge of a task force dedicated to relocating the aliens from District 9 to District 10 – which, aside from being unimaginatively titled, is an even less desirable location. By law Wikus must serve each alien an eviction notice. Cocksure and contemptuous, he tramples through the District 9 community followed by his team and a camera man. Something happens to Wikus that turns him into a particularly valuable asset for mankind but the less said about what transpires, the better. District 9 is a wild ride, about as unpredictable as a blockbuster gets. Wait until you see how a human fires an alien weapon. Wait until you meet Christopher Johnson.

Embedding monster movies with overripe social commentary is nothing new. Horror auteur George Romero performed a similar metaphoric manoeuvre with zombies in his seminal Night of the Living Dead in 1968, one of the differences being that Romero’s film pioneered its genre, paving the way for an endless supply of off-breed guts-n-limbs pics whereas District 9 arrives after many decades of aliens movies. These movies have conditioned audiences to expect that aliens will be either pure-as-virgin innocents of the phone home variety or “nnooooo peeeacceee!” intergalactic ghouls intent on blowing us all to kingdom come. The District 9 aliens are neither.

In Romero’s film it was a final hard-hitting scene that smacked the audience for six: at the end of a gruelling battle, the humans ripped to pieces by their un-dead aggressors, a last reel shows the zombies mutilated and tortured, puppets for sick games by human soldiers. District 9 roars this “we’re the monsters!” message from virtually the first scene. The audience are not invited to cheer and hoot for the aliens’ demise. They are encouraged to dismiss black-and-whites and look for the greys, at least some of the time, as Blomkamp manages to have it both ways (pro-human and pro-alien). Through a clever plot twist the conflict between alien and human sides of the fence is muddied. Some of the tension comes out of Copley’s stellar performance: it’s flustered, jittery and panic-struck; Wikus is anti-hero who acts largely out of his own interests.

Good science fiction is always about marrying entertainment with something deeper. District 9’s shrewdly constructed story manages to be both plausible and out of this world, with lots of detail and subtle innovative quirks. The final protracted action scene is a little generic but packs a punch. The film has an electric, at times breathless pace, with some very well staged up-close action scenes and outstanding CGI: so good, in fact, it’s easy to forget the prawns aren’t actually on set.

If District 9 sounds a little too intellectual for you – if carnage is what you want, destruction is your thang, SFX chaos is the sole reason you shelled out to see Transformers 2 and Terminator: Salvation – rest assured the film works perfectly well as a down-n-dirty action spectacle. Try really, really hard, and you might not even have to think about anything remotely resembling subtexts or political commentary or social parallels. No promises.

District 9’s Australian theatrical release date: August 13, 2009