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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


An alien from Neill Blomkamp's District 9, one of the best movies of the year.
This summer, I've taken a lot of grief from readers for my negative reviews of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. In my defense, I present District 9. The angry readers have accused me of everything from "not liking to have fun" to not being able to enjoy a pure action movie. Well, District 9 is like an antidote to those other films. It is everything that Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe tried - and failed - to be. You want wall-to-wall action? Well, here's a movie that'll have you hanging in breathless anticipation from one moment to the next. You like special effects? The ones here are so seamless and believable that they take the story to a higher level. And you want to talk about fun? This film has it in spades. I defy anyone to sit through District 9 and not recognize it as being far superior to the fighting robots or the soldiers in "acceleration suits."

The early scenes in the film use brilliantly simulated news footage to set up the premise. Twenty years ago, a large spaceship ran out of fuel over Johannesburg, South Africa. It's inhabitants were brought to the ground and have been living in detainment camps ever since. The camps, of course, are little more than slums, rife with crime including (among other things) "interspecies prostitution." A government subcontractor known as Multinational United operates some of the areas and has plans to evict the aliens and move them to what is essentially a concentration camp. The man they put in charge of this is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely), a somewhat nebbishy bureaucrat who perhaps lets the power of his new position go to his head.

We see Wikus being interviewed in some of the news reports, and during one of them, he accidentally sprays himself in the face with a substance he finds in one of the slums. What happens to him next is standard stuff in sci-fi, yet District 9 finds an original way to play it, thanks to some supporting characters who are dangerous arms dealers. They want Wikus for reasons that are as spooky as they are compelling. The other significant character is "Christopher," one of the aliens who is planning some sort of escape and whose destiny crosses directly with that of Wikus.

I'm trying not to reveal too many specifics of the plot because District 9 is not predictable. Every time I thought I knew where the story was going, it suddenly went in a different direction or found a new spin. That quality is always so satisfying in movies. How many times do you feel like you know the entire arc of a picture, even before you go in? It happens frequently, with both good films and bad ones because, by nature, a lot of mainstream films follow a template. District 9, on the other hand, is all about going against the template. The end result was that I was riveted the entire time, waiting to see what would happen next.

Another original twist is in using science-fiction to tell a story that is fundamentally about Apartheid. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp is, in fact, South African, and this is a subject that hits very close to home for him. I could write an entire review about the film's subtext, but I'd rather allow you to discover its specifics for yourself. What's worth mentioning is that Blomkamp makes a very good point: that no one wins in a cultural oppression because it only creates a sense of unrest and hostility.

The action here is virtually non-stop, and the reason why it's the best on-screen action of the summer is because it actually supports the theme. A novel concept, huh? District 9 has lots of explosions and shootouts and stunts and amazing special effects - just as many as Transformers and G.I. Joe. The difference is that Blomkamp knows how to integrate those things in service of a story. We care about what happens to Wikus. We care equally about what happens to "Christopher." The mayhem here is not self-justifying; it is an essential ingredient to a film that's about both political and personal survival. Some of the set pieces will linger in your memory much longer than those silly accelerator suits ever will, especially the big finale which has an admittedly Transformers-like ingredient to it.

District 9 is the whole package: it's smart, provocative, fun, and exciting as hell. It is all those things because a filmmaker has come along who isn't afraid to challenge the audience. Neill Blomkamp understands that giving the crowd a thrill is a wonderful thing, but it happens so much more powerfully as part of a larger, more substantive package. I enjoyed myself immensely watching District 9, and I noticed that there was so much going on in the margins that the film almost demands repeated viewings. Pretty amazing how a low-budget picture with no recognizable stars could show up late in the summer and completely put to shame all of the other bigger, more expensive studio action flicks. This is how you do it right.

( out of four)

District 9 is rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.

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