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District 9

It’s hard to know what to expect from a South African sci-fi horror film, in the same way that you might struggle to accurately perceive what a Cuban screwball comedy might be like, or a Dutch political drama. You’re curious from the off. District 9, then, has no precedent that I’m aware of, and that lends the film a constantly surprising allure.
Johannesburg is chosen, for some reason, by a horde of some million aliens (‘prawns’) as an earthly base, and they outstay their welcome. Our hero (Sharlto Copley) is tasked with the thanklessness of serving up eviction-notices to these itinerant creatures as part of a ‘relocation’ programme, from a ramshackle base reminiscent of a third-world slum, ‘District 9’, to ‘District 10’, a newly positioned alternative alien site (more like a back-of-beyond isolation camp) for them to reside hundreds of miles outside the city, where they can be forgotten about and kept in distant check by the authorities. Short-shrift being given to any obstinate evictees: they’re exterminated on the spot with nary a shrug.
During this process, Copley raids an alien home and inadvertently sprays himself with a substance that ushers in an old horror-staple – a spin on the old ‘infected’ vampire/zombie/werewolf metamorphosis. Copley grows a ‘prawn’ claw, a glossy black pincer that renders him a bit of a curiosity initially, but he is soon put to nefarious means by a government keen to capitalise on his new-found ability, due to DNA enactive geek plot development, to engage with alien warfare and become a weapon against the interlopers. They are ready to vivisect the poor chap before he blossoms into another prawn, so he legs it, becomes a fugitive and an intriguing initial premise morphs into a genuinely compulsive thriller with shades of Alien Nation, Enemy Mine and countless others.
The sci-fi elements, so often the downside of this type of film, are totally believable throughout, and the ‘prawns’ are engaging, empathetic and likeable, with a neat line in sardonic, aggrieved dialogue that renders them ingratiatingly cynical. We also have a protagonist in Copley that’s basically floundering much of the time, a weedy suit forced into defending his existence, albeit as a fraught human/prawn fusion. He banked the coveted role of ‘Murdoch’ in the upcoming A-Team reboot of the back of this apparently entirely improvised performance, and thoroughly deserved to.
The film has a few simple but clever conceits. By merely affording the prawns human-like movement and gestures, the savagery of the humans disparagingly shepherding the prawns into a ghetto compound is exacerbated to the extent that it’s not just injustice that puts us onside with the ill-treated tribe of aliens, but a neatly manipulated anthropomorphic recognition. In other words, the clever effects make us care about their plight. In other, less dextrous hands, the aliens might merely be a neat array of expendable CGI gestures, an interesting looking bit of insignificant bullet-fodder. Here, our sympathies are muddied, then subverted in an intelligent, pointed way.
The finale is perhaps a little time-honoured, but there’s much to be impressed by in District 9. After drivel like Knowing and a slew of uninvolving effects-led films over the last few years, this is a welcome addition to a recently ill-served sub-genre.
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