This Jumble Of Other Sci-fi Plot Lines Is Hardly Original

'District 9' ** ( 2 Stars)

August 14, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

You can't say "District 9" is even skin-deep because the human characters soon get swamped by swarms of aliens who wear their skeletons and other body parts on the outside. The citizens of Johannesburg have dubbed these creatures "prawns." The government has settled them in a refugee camp known as District 9 and handed over their care to Multi-National United (MNU), a private corporation. It hopes to make a killing from the manufacture of alien weaponry. But the prawns' biological engineering thwarts MNU: To shoot these aliens' guns you need their DNA.

From beginning to end, no one knows exactly why the prawns' mother ship flew to Earth and parked above the South African metropolis.

The audience knows quickly enough: It was to enable director Neill Blomkamp, a Peter Jackson protege, to play mind games with moviegoers about the history of apartheid.

"District 9" drips with superficial daring, but few of its associations add up or acquire much force. Blomkamp sets up a complicated premise, complete with a hierarchy of prawns from clueless drones to ingenious leaders who lay low in the camp and disguise their status when they interact with humans.

But Blomkamp treats his sci-fi and his politics haphazardly, as if he were writing scenes in shuffle mode. At first, he focuses on maintaining a gritty documentary feeling and giving audiences a simple handle on his potentially complex story. Then chaos overwhelms him. He abandons his camera-on-the-run style whenever he needs to flesh out his parade of dynamic incidents - or imbue the plot with a shred of clarity.

These days, any attempt to do something novel in the sci-fi/fantasy genre earns good will, but in "District 9" the surprises aren't as welcome as they should be. Even on its own comic-book terms, the film is less like a roller coaster than a monorail ride through a threatening but often inscrutable landscape. As a storyteller, Blomkamp fails to ignite our curiosity in the finer workings of his narrative, or clinch its mysteries with lucid and exciting climaxes.

The hinge of the movie - and the only human who registers as a full personality, not a stock type - is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the MNU bureaucrat in charge of evacuating District 9 and moving its denizens into a concentration camp. When Wikus clumsily spills a mysterious fluid on himself and starts to grow his own prawn arm, he learns he can also shoot prawn weaponry. He becomes the prey of his own boss, who wants to cut him open alive to seize his precious body fluids. A debauched outlaw chief merely wants to amputate and eat his arm.

The introduction of an arms race in more ways than one temporarily gives the film a core. And it's daring to center the action on a mixed figure like Wikus, a panicky brown-noser who is also a romantic capable of empathy and sacrifice.

But all the jumbled parallels to a real social-political world, as well as the satires of "Black Hawk Down" and "urban" crime movies, impose a specious topicality on a sprawling, derivative entertainment. It's mainly a compost of other sci-fi movies, some as old as "RoboCop" and "Aliens," and some as recent as "Cloverfield" and "Transformers." It's a bad joke that "District 9" will be hailed for its "originality." The movie's main fun comes from wondering what coin of the pop realm Blomkamp will pluck out from his memory bank next.

MPAA rating: R for bloody violence and pervasive language

Running time: 1:52 minutes

Starring Sharlto Copley (Wikus Van De Merwe), Jason Cope (Grey Bradnam), Nathalie Boltt (Sarah Livingstone).

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release. Directed by Neill Blomkamp

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