For hard-core, hard-R action fans who prefer Aliens to Minority Report and Rambo to G.I. Joe, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is the raw, uncut stuff; it's a 12-round heavyweight bout overflowing with scenes of spectacular tension and brutality. There's a germ of something larger here in its dark depiction of humanity's first contact with alien life forms. But the film might be far less objectionable if the filmmakers hadn't tried so feebly to connect its images with contemporary reality.
Using a pseudo-documentary style, District 9 recounts the fate of a gigantic alien spaceship that stalls out over Johannesburg, South Africa. Humans board the ship and "rescue" its inhabitants, insectile creatures who are immediately thrown into a makeshift slum near the city's outskirts. Twenty years after the ship's arrival, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a clueless, careerist bureaucrat working for the Multi-National United (MNU) corporation, is chosen to evacuate the aliens from their shantytowns and move them to a newer site even further from the city. Things do not go as planned, however. Through a series of mishaps, Wikus is exposed to alien technology that causes grotesque side effects and sparks the interest of the MNU's researchers and executives, who see in Wikus an answer to their longstanding problems with extraterrestrial bioweaponry.
The visual and auditory echoes of real-world social organizations — MNU trucks that look like UN peacekeeping forces, intensely voyeuristic and mindless hordes of television cameras beaming violent images around the world, alien ghettos reminiscent not just of South African townships but of intolerable slums in any 21st century megacity — keep intruding on the pure, brainless sensory overload Blomkamp really wants to give his audience. And although such historical allusions are soon dispatched in favor of a much more traditional chase-action film format, the aftertaste lingers. The surface of the film should appall anyone up on current events, not because of its resonance but because of its shallowness.
The human beings in District 9 are as shallow as the filmmaker's superficial nods to historical oppression; in many ways this movie is as grimly misanthropic as a cheaply made horror flick. Even when compared to the sadistic, cold-blooded mercenary that tries to hunt him down, Wikus remains a small-minded, self-serving opportunist who lacks patience, tolerance, and any sense of common decency. His highly unlikely change of heart cannot possibly come from some dawning realization about his place in the cosmos. It probably comes from the alien DNA coursing through his veins.
What's left is aggressive, overwrought technique unmoored from any clear moral, ethical, or even entertainment-based concerns, giving viewers a movie that's frequently intense but never exciting and frequently violent but never cathartic. Its grating, grinding tension will wear down all but the hardiest fans, who will chortle in delight at its gruesome annihilations. The gritty, handheld camera work first popularized in serious war films like Saving Private Ryan seems to have reached its endpoint here. The blood-spattered camera-lens effect seems similarly used up, although treating humans as ketchup packets is the film's only moderately amusing example of wit.