Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James and Vanessa Haywood
Direction: Neill Blomkamp
The expanded list of 10 Best Picture Oscar nominees this year has helped some genres to slip in. That may be a good thing, but probably Academy selectors in their anxiety to widen the genre canvas have included movies not quite up to the mark. Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" is one. Awfully distasteful to look at, the movie feels like a documentary in parts (though it is not) and science-fiction in others.
On the surface, District 9, shot in Blomkamp's native South Africa, is an account of a bitter conflict between men and aliens, called Prawns, huge four-legged insect-like beings which walk upright and talk in a garbled lingo (thankfully subtitled). But the film may well be a disguised condemnation of apartheid and black poverty.
District 9 is the name given to a horrible ghetto where these equally horrible looking creatures are imprisoned after their spaceship gets stranded over Johannesburg nearly three decades earlier. In the intervening years, the prawns have multiplied into hundreds of thousands, but become severely malnourished and diseased.
When Wikus (Sharlto Copley), working for a powerful technology company with questionable records in genetic mutation, is asked to evict the prawns, he himself begins to turn into one after he is contaminated by a toxic substance. Wikus' problems intensify when his bosses want to conduct life-threatening experiments on him. Then begins the chase of the fugitive by the company, with Nigerian hoodlums and shady weapons dealers closing in as well on Wikus.
The movie gathers momentum at this point with Wikus befriending an alien in the hope of finding a cure, but too many gimmicks, some orchestrated by the camera, take the feel out of the work. Wikus eventually becomes a killing machine, and that is too much of a stretch.
District 9 does score in visual effects: the prawns look amazingly real, hardly fabricated, but there is not much else to take back home after the curtain falls.
Gautaman Bhaskaran has been writing on the Oscars for many years