LOS ANGELES - The mysterious and alarming signs have been out there for weeks, months even: On billboards, benches and bus stops featuring crude cartoon alien drawings, they've warned us of non-humans, they've urged us to remain separate.
"What is all that about?" you've probably wondered. Well, they're ads for the enormously buzzed-about "District 9," and thankfully, given their ubiquity, all the hype is justified.
This is one intense, intelligent, well-crafted action movie - one that dazzles the eye with seamless special effects but also makes you think without preaching. Like the excellent "Moon" from earlier this summer, "District 9" has the esthetic trappings of science fiction but it's really more of a character drama, an examination of how a man responds when he's forced to confront his identity during extraordinary circumstances.
Aliens who arrived here in their spaceship more than 20 years ago have now been quarantined in cramped and dangerous slums; the nerdy bureaucrat charged with moving them to new quarters (the tremendous Sharlto Copley) undergoes a physical and emotional transformation in the process.
What's amazing is that this visceral yet philosophically sophisticated film is the first feature from commercial and music-video director Neill Blomkamp, who co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell. (Peter Jackson is the big name attached to this refreshingly star-free project - he's one of the producers - and Weta Digital, the company behind Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, provided the intricate alien effects.)
Blomkamp set "District 9" in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was born and raised, so it's easy to assume his themes of racial division are a metaphor for apartheid. You could interpret it that way, but its quick bursts of violence and urban warfare also feel like a statement on the war in Iraq; a private corporation tasked with keeping aliens away from humans is reminiscent of Blackwater.
Using his own short film, "Alive in Jo'burg," as a leaping-off point, Blomkamp creates a sensation of relevance and immediacy by combining fake news footage, real TV clips and documentary-style, hand-held camerawork. Meanwhile, the fantastic sight of a spaceship hovering over Johannesburg - trapped and unable to return home, its former inhabitants scurrying about on the ground in squalor - creates an ominous and steady source of tension.
But he also builds suspense early on with a flurry of talking-head interviews from experts and insiders, all foreshadowing that something horrible has happened in the slum known as District 9, and that Copley's character, Wikus van der Merwe, was at the centre of it.
"The entire world was looking at Johannesburg so we had to do the right thing," says one.
"Nobody saw it coming at all," says another.
Wikus seems a rather ordinary sort in his own on-camera interviews: sunny, jumpy, a bit like Ricky Gervais' character, David Brent, on the British version of "The Office." He lives in a nondescript suburban house with his wife; his father-in-law is his boss. Everything seems to be in order.
But what's fascinating is watching his true nature emerge as he interacts with the aliens once he enters their camp and tries to evict them. He becomes slick, conniving, almost cruel. And what's even more riveting is the way his dramatic exposure to these creatures - known pejoratively as "prawns" for their antenna and hard shells - doesn't necessarily make him a better person all of a sudden.
There is so much more to say from this point but doing so would ruin the many twists and revelations in store. We'll just say that Wikus adapts - he learns how to survive - in a place where there are no easy answers.
"District 9," a TriStar Pictures release, is rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. Running time: 113 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
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