King Kong was a huge letdown, or rather just too much of everything. Too many SFX diversions (that valley of giant bugs, sheesh!), too much frantic action, too much stuff flying at you for two hours. Like binging on plastic-wrapped American cheese slices for two hours. On the other hand, the shoehorned supersaturation of this completely unnecessary remake made it very easy and comfortable to forget all about Peter Jackson for a couple of years.
Not anymore. Jackson's name is writ large across District 9, a supercharged sci-fi action thriller that does everything right that Kong did wrong, but only as executive producer. The director is named Neill Blomfeld, a Jackson protégé, and to judge from this mainstream breakthrough every bit as talented as he is lucky. District 9 is a terrific space opera—not quite great enough to be a science fiction classic, but incredibly entertaining all the same.
Dig this premise: An enormous alien spaceship comes to a halt over Johannesburg, of all places. Nothing happens for, like, half a year. Intrepid earthling investigators finally drill their way into it and find a vast, starving crew of bipedal aliens inside. In the liberal paradise of the future (though that's a bit of a puzzle, as scattered clues hint at a date of 1982, and the whole movie is framed by a documentary device that has experts discussing events some time after they took place), humanity's first priority is to grant the full complement of human rights to the bewildered space visitors, who turn out to be far more adept at crime and anarchic violence than, for example, healing geraniums with magical glowing fingers or inspiring Cold War powers to disarm. Seemingly by choice, the aliens (called "prawns" for their seafood appearance, move into Johannesburg's sprawling slums and proceed to multiply, quite at home in the trash and squalor. For some reason, they're crazy about canned cat food.
Enter Wikus Van De Merwe, the bumbling government functionary tasked with canvassing the titular District 9 township to sign the aliens up for relocation to a special camp some 200 miles away—one of many unmistakable echoes of apartheid ringing throughout the movie (Blomkamp, a naturalized Canadian, was born in South Africa). Van De Merwe is a nicely flawed action hero: nervous, naïve, oblivious to danger and intensely idealistic, all qualities which set him at odds with the brutal work of, essentially, clearing a ghetto. The aliens of District 9 are nicely flawed, too. A couple of them are smarter and more sensitive than the rest, but for the most part they're a thuggish rabble, prone to sudden violent outbursts and general mayhem.
Naturally, the relocation campaign does not proceed as smoothly as expected. When Van De Merwe accidentally doses himself with a powerful mutagen cooked up bathtub-gin style by the smartest alien, he undergoes the most disgusting metamorphosis since Jeff Goldblum's in The Fly. Speaking of echoes, District 9 is full of things that remind one pleasantly of other movies, not all of them space operas. Parts of it recall Robocop, Aliens and even Black Hawk Down, and there's a consistent streak of black humor that hovers somewhere between Peter Jackson and Paul Verhoeven (whose Starship Troopers is clearly an influence). Somehow, District 9 manages to distill the best parts of its sci-fi antecedents while remaining wholly original and surprising throughout.
The SFX are good but used judiciously, in stark contrast to the Jacksonian extravagances of King Kong. The aliens aren't particularly novel or fascinating, which might be the whole idea: They're notable for their credible ordinariness and human-like weaknesses. The acting is great, particularly Sharlto Copley as Van De Merwe, energizing the hapless action hero with equal parts jitters, pathos and have-a-go recklessness. Amazingly, it's his first acting role.
The docudrama framing device, while acceptable, ultimately detracts from the urgency of the movie. Far more effective are additional film elements like security-camera footage, which lend District 9 a ready believability even when the documentary device disappears entirely. For all the CGI whiz-bangery, District 9 owes more to the '70s tradition of grimy, cynical science fiction like Alien, with shabby spaceships and pessimistic characters, and the urban anomie of Robocop. Filmed in actual Johannesburg slums with the current occupants still in residence, the movie's real-life trash and squalor make it that much harder to achieve a comfortable escapist distance.
If there's a downside to District 9, it's that the last third devolves into standard shootout fare, albeit done well and with enough explosions and splashing gore to satisfy the most listless genre fan. The third-act drag undermines the ending somewhat, all the more so for the 11th-hour reappearance of the framing device, like a snake trying to get back into an already shed skin. But these are minor quibbles. District 9 is top-shelf summer action fare, and director Blomkamp, barely 30 years old, a name to watch for in our own future.
District 9 continues at the Carmike 10.