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District 9 (2009)

Fabulous.

This movie is so great that as soon as it finished, I wanted to play it from the beginning again.

The story is about what happens when aliens finally do make contact with earth. However, instead of coming with peace, new technology, or even conquest, the one million aliens on the ship are emaciated and weak. It becomes the responsibility of humans to care for these sick aliens, and they are set up in a refuge camp in Johannesburg, South Africa. Of course, things rapidly deteriorate and the refuge camp turns into a slum, complete with a Nigerian warlord who has been told that his diseases will be cured if he eats various parts of an alien. Tensions ratchet up higher and higher, the people of Johannesburg demand that the aliens be relocated and a corporation called Multi-National United steps in to begin the eviction and relocation process.

Our “hero,” Wikus Van De Merwe, steps into this mess. He’s be appointed to lead the distribution of the eviction notices, a job he seems completely unsuited for given his affable nature and his unquestioning faith in the system. Of course, who better to lead the way into the world of the “prawns,” a derogatory name for the aliens, than someone with an unbounded enthusiasm? Wikus is the everyman who may work for the bad guys, but only because his own goodness prevents him from imagining the horrors that other humans are capable of committing. As eviction day goes pretty much the way we would imagine it—it’s hard to imagine that anyone thought that the prawns would calmly sign eviction notices—Wikus maintains his good nature until he stumbles upon a secret lab in one of the prawns’ shacks and inadvertently sprays a mysterious black liquid over his face. I’ll leave it at that, but lets just say that Wikus soon discovers that man’s inhumanity to man is not limited to humans.

I gotta say, this is one of those movies that would never have been possible with CGI technology. And the special effects are fantastic. The prawns look completely real and there was never a moment where I conscious of the fact that I was watching computer generated beings. But more than the CGI, the world of District 9 seems real for other reasons. It starts being presented as a documentary, complete with commentary from professors and experts, interviews, and historical footage. Since Wikus naturally is the focus of the documentary, the film makes a fairly seamless transition from documentary mode to omniscient narrator. Even more, the scene of minority populations living in slums and being forced to relocate under military supervision is all too much a part of real life too. The fact that District 9, the name of the prawns’ shanty town, is in Johannesburg, makes it impossible to resist drawing parallel to current global politics and turning the movie in a parable. I think the film makers are cognizant of that too, but the film doesn’t come across as heavy-handed or preachy. There may be a soap box, but it’s carefully concealed under the debris of the slum’s dump that the prawns sort through every day.

The Oscars start in 49 minutes and District 9 is nominated for Best Picture. Here’s hoping it wins.