What's often lost in summer's rush of big-budget, action blockbusters is the fresh vision of a dreamer.
More often than not, studio action films don't start with a story to tell but a concept—a concept for big explosions, thrilling sequences, and big box-office gains. Last year was an exception: Big, studio-driven franchise vehicles (The Dark Knight, Iron Man) were fueled by story and character. But this summer, the big-budget, big box-office action blockbusters are pulling up empty. The genre's lone fresh breath has come from an out-of-nowhere alien movie made by a rookie director from South Africa.
The story behind District 9 is fascinating. Based on some short films he made, Neill Blomkamp was chosen by producer Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson) to direct his film adaptation of the video game Halo. Five months into preproduction, though, the studio canned it. The young director was devastated until someone suggested that Blomkamp—and the team assembled to make Halo—just make a different movie, his movie. Blomkamp started writing, Jackson financed it, Sony eventually picked it up, and the result is what a Chicago Tribune article humorously dubbed "the world's first autobiographical alien apartheid movie."
The movie begins as a supposed documentary about District 9, a refugee aid camp built for aliens who arrived on Earth almost 30 years ago. We learn through news clips, interviews and other assembled footage that when their massive space ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa, humans expected an attack or a message from a higher intelligence. Neither came. Eventually, humans made the first move which led to an encounter of the third kind unlike anything we've seen in alien-invasion films. And now, three decades later, District 9 is a frightful slum under the control of a military contracting company called Multi-National United (MNU). Riots, hatred, selfish ambition and violence reign in Johannesburg. People's patience has run out. Everyone just wants the aliens to go home.
The documentary's focal point is MNU field agent Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), on his biggest day: leading the move of the now 1.8 million aliens to a new camp further out of town. The documentary sizzles with energy and mystery as it foreshadows a controversial and mysterious incident that will draw the world's attention to District 9, MNU, and Wikus himself.
There is much to hail as original, refreshing, and inventive about Blomkamp's surprising—albeit flawed—first film. Obviously, most striking here is Blomkamp's use of science fiction's ability to camouflage the known with the fantastic as a means to study the human condition. Still, District 9 is not preachy about race relations and bigotry. Instead, Blomkamp simply takes the reality he knows—having grown up in the apartheid of Johannesburg—and places it within the absurd. Thus, his fictional world gains weight and familiarity. We don't know what it feels like to live with aliens among us, but in this relatable context, imagining how we'd react comes much easier. After all, many of the man-on-the-street interviews used in the film are not actors but real South Africans talking about Nigerian slums. Looking at the history of how humans treat one another, it's devastating to think what we'd do when we can't say, "Hey, we're all humans!"