Already ordained in geek circles as a future cult classic, Neill Blomkamps fiendishly clever feature kicks off such an abundance of provocative ideas, its heartbreaking to watch the second half of the film devolve into just another shoot em up, however expertly helmed it may be.
Beginning in a sly mockumentary fashion,District 9 tells of an enormous intergalactic spacecraft that stalled out above Johannesburg some 20-odd years ago. A million or so starving aliens, nicknamed prawns for their crustacean-like appearance, were stranded with no way to get home, and found themselves settled in the run-down South African refugee camp from which the film takes its title.
Any whiffs you might be getting of apartheid are absolutely intentional, as for the first chunk of the film Blomkamp nimbly shades in all sorts of witty sociopoltical grace notes, satirizing everything from institutionalized racism and anti-immigration crusaders to a large Halliburtionesque conglomerate contracted by the government to move these pesky prawns to another, even more dismal camp. The bumbling Wikus van fer Merwe (Sharito Copley) is charged with getting these countless creatures to sign proper eviction notices, and his hilariously awkward interactions feel like The Office with aliens.
Despite this promising set-up, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell dont have much in the way of follow-through besides mayhem. For reasons best left unspoiled, our Wickus becomes a wanted man. Abruptly abandoning the fake-documentary format, District 9 settles into a chase movie, as our ineffectual bureaucrat hero discovers his inner Mad Max, teaming up with a super-intelligent prawn quite exquisitely named Christopher Johnson.
The layers of smart subtext quickly fall away, as District 9 shifts focus to oversized alien machine guns that shoot lightening bolts, and a massive robotic exoskeleton taking on military hardware in a way that suggests what a Transformers movie might look like if directed with any degree of competence.
The action is admittedly thrilling and well-staged, but lacks the subversive spark of District 9s early reels. The movie deflates as it goes along. After youve watched a doomed alien race become obsessed with cat food and Nigerian prostitutes, gunfights dont seem all that impressive anymore. Even when the guns shoot lightening bolts. B