District 9 (15)

4.00

Loving these aliens

Forget Transformers, Terminator and the other expensive tosh disfiguring our cinema screens this summer. District 9 is a South African sci-fi B-movie that punches well above its weight even as it falls back on inspiration from major-league precedents. If David Cronenberg had been handed the script of Starship Troopers and told to keep the budget tight, it might have looked a bit like this.

One of the writer-director Neill Blomkamp's best moves here is to turn the stock idea of alien invasion on its head. This is his scenario: in the 1980s, a gigantic spaceship became stranded over Johannesburg, and its inhabitants, instead of launching a hostile attack, had to be relieved from their stricken craft and domiciled on earth. Being an unsightly race of crustacean-type bipeds – their derogatory nickname is "prawns" – they are herded away from humankind into a refugee camp known as District 9. Cut to the present, and the authorities have contracted a private company, MNU, to evict the aliens from what's become a slum township and relocate them to a concentration camp. In charge of this operation is a field worker, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who fails to take precautions during the evacuation and becomes infected with alien DNA.

Up to this point, the historical allegory of District 9 is unignorable. Nobody actually mentions the word "apartheid", but the resonances abound. Caught between a private-contract army that break into their houses and an underworld of Nigerian gangsters who exploit them, the aliens face a system of oppression that inevitably calls to mind the imbecile cruelties of the South African police state. What transpires, however, takes the plot into the realm of nightmare: a hush-hush genetic experimentation program from which MNU will adapt the aliens' more powerful weaponry to their own use.

It's in this context that the film's choice of hero becomes especially interesting. Wikus begins the story as a joke, a nerdy bureaucrat playing up to the TV cameras as though he were the star of his own docudrama, and plainly incapable of exercising any proper authority. We find that he only got the job because his father-in-law is the head of MNU. Wikus's infection from the alien virus takes him through terror, despair and, finally, to resistance, as he joins forces with an alien scientist whose long-term plan has been to get back to the mothership. The reluctant alliance of running dog and underdog is itself a movie cliché, but it's given a lift by the unlikeliness of both partners – what kind of extra-terrestrial, after all, has a name like "Christopher Johnson"?

You can tick off the sci-fi references, from the heavyweights of Alien (naturally) and Blade Runner to parables of mutation such as The Fly, RoboCop and the film's producer Peter Jackson's no-budget horror Bad Taste. Yet the borrowings feel incidental: Blomkamp and his co-writer, Terri Tatchell, aren't interested in your movie knowledge, they just want to dazzle your eyeballs and frazzle your senses. Even in its last third, when the stalk-and-flee action cleaves to conventional models, the pace and exuberance never let up for a second. What's really surprising is the way Copley's performance as Wikus grows on you; the office twit is turned by his ordeal into a creature of pathos, and he manages this even while mutating into an outsize prawn.

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy