District 9 (2009)

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka

Directed by: Neil Blomkamp

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

The alien refugee camp in District 9

No-one would have believed, at the end of the 20th century, that aliens would finally come to land, not in Washington, New York, or even Horsall Common, but Johannesburg, South Africa. The extra-terrestrials in question come to our planet not so much in peace as in desperation: half-starved, lost refugees in need of aid.

Twenty years on, the unfortunate alien are still confined to a foul, over-crowded, crime-ridden ghetto known as District 9. Despised by the local populace, who derogatorily dub them 'prawns' because, well, that's what they look like, they scavenge, rob and trade over-sized space age weaponry with terrifying, battle-scarred, cannibalistic, Voodoo worshipping Nigerian gangsters.

Sadly, the whole situation rings horribly true. If aliens were to be stranded on our planet, a dispossessed people with no means of enforcing their 'human' rights, this is how we would treat them – and the film doesn't need to be set in South Africa, home of apartheid, to hammer that message home. Not that District 9 preaches – far from it. It's got a story worthy of any blockbuster action film to tell.

Wikus evicts an alien from this shack in District 9

The powers that be, see, have drawn up a plan to evict the aliens from their slum shanty town and move them to a new camp, 200km away from Johannesburg. And leading the operation is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a well-meaning, tank-top wearing civil servant who would never in a million years have got the job if his father-in-law weren't the boss.  

While raiding the shacks of 'prawns', Wikus accidentally ingests some strange alien fluid that has seriously unwanted side effects. Suddenly we move from political sci-fi with bureaucracy to full-blown The Fly body horror, as our poor hero starts spewing up violently, oozing black substances from every orifice, and develops an unhealthy appetite for raw meat and cat food. Next thing we know he's on the run in prawn land, where he enlists the aid of an alien scientist and his cute little bug son, thus turning District 9 into the most unlikely buddy movie since Turner and Hooch.

Sharlto Copley as Wikus in District 9District 9 may be a mish-mash of different film genres (it even gets a bit Transformers at the end), but that just makes it all the more watchable. Filmed mostly in a documentary, 'found footage' style (but avoiding too much migraine-inducing jerkiness), with a palette of bleached out, sandy colours reminiscent of footage from Helmand, its low-fi, gritty styling is utterly convincing.

Ticking all the right boxes for a great summer blockbuster (Explosions and escapes? Check. Evil scientists carrying out genetic experiments in basement labs? Check. Really big guns and a robotic suit of armour? Check and check.) District 9 pulls off the seemingly near-impossible feat of combining these elements with characters you care about, a credible script and a proper storyline that actually makes you think. Intelligent, at times shocking and utterly absorbing, District 9 is simply awesome: I am just loving the alien.

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