District 9, Neill Blomkamp, 112 mins, (15)

This dystopian thriller's attempt at social comment is hijacked by extraterrestrial crustaceans with a craze for cat food

South Africa-set science-fiction oddity District 9 is as close as mainstream cinema gets these days to a cheap and cheerful B-movie.

That is, it's clearly not cheap – its producer is Tolkien-adapting mogul Peter Jackson – and it's cheerful only in the grimmest way. But it does have a punchy idea or two, a dash of sour wit and some flamboyant action style: if there were still drive-ins across America, it would be playing in every one. As it is, it has done very nicely at the US box office, netting $91.4m (£56.3m).

So Neill Blomkamp's polished production isn't quite in the rough'n'ready bargain-basement school of Roger Corman – although it does have something of the inventive grit of Corman alumnus James Cameron in his early days. District 9's premise is quite an original one, too, if you haven't seen the 1988 film Alien Nation, that is: space beings arrive on Earth and settle into the role of unloved immigrants.

Blomkamp's take on the theme yields, at least initially, an acerbic parable about apartheid. The film starts in familiar mock-documentary vein, as a report on the problems surrounding extra-terrestrial presence in, of all places, Johannesburg. Some 20 years earlier, a vast spacecraft appeared in the skies above the city. It turned out to contain a race of crustacean-like aliens, leggy things with twitching mandibles and burbling voices.

Humans at first succoured the stranded visitors, housing them in a hastily erected refugee camp. But the humanitarian impulse quickly soured, and now the newcomers are a loathed underclass, known by the contemptuous nickname "prawns". They are scorned by rich and dirt-poor, whites and blacks alike. However, Blomkamp – even-handedly, you might say – goes out of his way not to make the aliens obviously sympathetic: they derail trains for fun, casually chomp tyres as if they were marshmallows and, ominously, are stockpiling fearsome weapons that only they can operate.

Conversely, however, there's barely a likeable human in sight. The film's ostensible hero is a grinning dolt named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley); he works for MNU, a company that plans to relocate the aliens to a new camp, where they need trouble Jo'burg's population no more. In fact, MNU is a ruthless weapons corporation interested only in acquiring the alien armoury, but the clueless Wikus doesn't know that, and eagerly signs up for a high-profile ethnic cleansing operation. As bigoted as any other human, he relishes his moment in front of the documentary cameras, enthusiastically explaining how prawn eggs burst like popcorn when torched. So we can't muster too much sympathy when he gets a splash of unidentified goo on him and unspeakable things start to happen, the sort of things that David Cronenberg would approve of.

Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell do a brisk job in the first half hour, using the mock-doc format to present the aliens' presence on Earth as perfectly everyday, while the humans expose their bigotry with cheerful dunderheadedness, and worse. The aliens' shanty-town deprivation is vividly evoked: the ungainly creatures stagger around, tormented by a junkie craving for cat food, for which they're willing to pay exorbitant prices to ruthless Nigerian crime gangs.

But when Blomkamp abandons the documentary framework to follow Vikus's misadventures, the film shifts into pacy but routine sci-fi action mode. The familiar dystopia-story premise – conformist unwittingly finds himself on the rebel side – is lost amid a barrage of shoot-outs, gelatinous splatter, and gratuitous displays of fancy hardware.

Representing the aliens is one "Christopher Johnson", played by Jason Cope – although whether this means that Cope just does the voice, or provides the twitchy, juddery movements for this chimera of CGI and prosthetics, I don't know. Johnson comes across as the most human character on show – although in saying that, I suppose I'm showing typical human prejudice. But the dice are loaded in favour of this prawn resistance fighter, the story's only fully characterised alien. What's more, Johnson has an alien child, a winsome little thing and CJ senior's easy ticket to our sympathy: how can we not root for a loving crustacean paterfamilias (a prawnfather? a crawdaddy?).

Sharlto Copley tries a little hard as the rebarbative Wikus: he certainly grabs our attention at the start, although his characterisation is essentially a ratty, rabid, flustered version of David Brent. But as the action hots up, you quickly tire of Copley's main trick of spitting out a panicky "Fook! Fook!" in a dense Afrikaans accent.

Director Blomkamp is good at mustering speedy action and posting grisly sight gags in the background, carnage always hovering comically at the edge of your vision. But I'm not sure that District 9 entirely gets the earthling racism out of its own system: its black actors generally get minor roles, unless they're playing the feral Nigerians, whose leader is after alien flesh to devour for its power-giving properties.

The genre slapdashery wins out over satirical finesse, but still District 9 is a provocative curio: the only film ever to put the "E.T." into "Soweto".

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee