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Published: Friday, 8/14/2009

Movie review: District 9 ****

Peter Jackson was on to something when he hired Neill Blomkamp to helm the Halo movie.

Though the game-based film never got past the pre-production stage due to studio disagreements, Jackson was impressed enough with the young director to produce and help finance his next film.

Blomkamp rewarded Jackson's leap of faith with District 9, a smart sci-fi about a group of alien refugees who come to Earth and are imprisoned in an internment camp.

Based on a terrific short film, Alive in Joburg, that Blomkamp co-wrote and directed in 2005, District 9 feels like Alien Nation meets a low-budget Halo movie. Like 1988's Alien Nation, District 9 involves testy inter-species relations between humans and our new alien guests. Things don't go well, and like Halo, there are plenty of action sequences with high-tech weaponry eye candy.

But District 9 is not your typical summer action movie, thanks to

its allegories on apartheid and race relations. Not surprisingly, District 9 is set in modern-day Johannesburg, South Africa, where Blomkamp was born and raised, and is based on his country's District 6 in Cape Town, an area declared "whites only" by South Africa's apartheid government in 1966 and its inhabitants forcibly removed.

District 9 begins as a documentary, and quickly gets audiences up to speed on how these aliens came to Earth: they showed up unexpectedly in a giant spacecraft, which hovers lifelessly above Johannesburg. After a long period of inactivity from the ship, military forces slice their way into the craft and find starving alien refugees inside. World governments aren't sure what to do with the aliens - they look like human-size variants of a grasshopper combined with an ant - so an internment camp is built just outside of Johannesburg to contain the insectoids.

While the aliens may live among us, they are far from welcome. As decades go by, the camp, known as District 9, devolves into a slum. The aliens live in shanties and scavenge for food among the large piles of trash and junk littering the camp. The deplorable living conditions matter little to humans, most of whom resent the creatures and the money spent to keep them here. The aliens are none too pleased with being forced to live in such squalor. Conflicts are inevitable.

Multi-National United (MNU), a private company contracted to run District 9 and control the aliens, decides to relocate the insectoids to another ramshackle camp. MNU agent Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) leads the relocation.

Wikus is a marginal employee whose good intentions and genial nature make up for his less-than-stellar job performance. He's also helped by the fact his father-in-law is his boss. But Wilkus is game for the job, which included a promotion. Under his command, the dangerous operation is mostly going well until he inadvertently contaminates himself with a strange alien liquid that begins to alter his human DNA into that of the aliens.

As Wikus races to save his humanity, he must battle his employers, who opportunistically consider his metamorphosis the key to unlocking advanced alien weaponry; the humans who hate him, and the aliens who fear him.

Little-known Copley is terrific as Wikus, whose goofy grin and amiable attitude quickly vanish into fear and desperation as he begins to change.

But District 9 really belongs to Blomkamp.

With a background in movie visual effects, Blomkamp makes the most out of a $30 million budget - a paltry sum when compared to the $200 million budget of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - and the CG work blends well into the real-life action. The aliens, in particular, hold up well.

District 9 does lose some of its intellectual focus toward its conclusion, under the blazing fire of guns and missiles and a dizzying guerilla-style camera zipping around the big battle sequence.

Perhaps it's a visual payoff for those restless gamers who are watching the movie out of curiosity to see what Blomkamp would have brought to the Halo film.

It gives Blomkamp a chance to strut his stuff, but it also feels a bit unnecessary, like adding an extra layer of frosting to a cake.

Fortunately, he keeps the twists coming, even during the mayhem, until the end.

The result is a modern sci-fi rarity that offers mind candy to go along with the eye candy. If nothing else, should the Halo movie ever be resurrected, Blomkamp proves he is the right man for the job.

Jackson knew it. And now we do, too.

Contact Kirk Baird at

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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