District 9 provides a thrilling hybrid of action and sci-fi allegory

Director Neill Blomkamp makes a hold-your-breath debut

In the impressive sci-fi thriller District 9, the nickname "Prawn" sticks to alien refugees whose mothership inexplicably arrives above Johannesburg, South Africa, and remains as a surreal fixture hanging above the cityscape. Nonplussed, the human race transfers the thousands of malnourished Prawns from their ship to terra firma. The blocks beneath the ship gradually become an impoverished alien shantytown called District 9.

The Prawns prove to be highly unsettling neighbors. With tentacled mouths, the tall, insectoid bipeds show uncomfortable delight in raw meat, cat food and high-powered weapons that only interface with their alien DNA. District 9 director Neill Blomkamp begins with a dizzying documentary-style recap of the human race's first contact with the Prawns. Talking heads, man-on-the-street interviews, and "Cops"-style footage show how humanity's wonder at alien intelligence swiftly turned into revulsion and hostility.

Two decades after the ship's arrival, sinister corporation MNU takes charge of relocating the Prawns - now an impoverished, ghettoized population of 1.8 million - to a new camp several hundred kilometers outside Johannesburg. MNU's head honcho makes his son-in-law Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) the lead on the relocation. Wikus is clearly a disaster waiting to happen. Private security troops armed to the teeth accompany Wikus and MNU employees to serve eviction papers to the Prawns. In one moment of bureaucratic surrealism, Wikus tries to explain the situation to a Prawn urinating in the street and wearing a red bra. Subtitles translate a Prawn's clicky language as "Fuck off!"

The combination of unjust relocation, bloodthirsty troops, and alien incomprehension all but guarantees the situation will explode. An unguessable mishap turns Wikus from a dithering MNU functionary into a prized corporate commodity. Wikus becomes a fugitive who can only find shelter among the Prawns he was ineffectually oppressing only hours earlier. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about District 9 isn't its disturbing allegories or its seamless sci-fi vision, but Copley's acting. The performer has virtually no screen experience, yet he takes Wikus from a bumbling, unconsciously racist corporate stooge to an anguished victim to something approximately heroic. From the first scenes you expect Martin Short, but you get a stellar genre performance worthy of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.

Credit goes to Blomkamp for keeping the focus on a character's personal transformation, when the filmmaker clearly had so much else to consider. A special-effects technician and protégé of Peter Jackson, Blomkamp gives a no less impressive film debut than his leading man. He was born in Johannesburg (but his family moved to Vancouver when he was a teenager) and he's keenly aware of both apartheid's legacy and the bleak squalor of shantytowns. Compared to the spectacular backdrops of space operas like Star Trek, District 9 primarily takes place in and around shacks of corrugated metal.

District 9 proves to be an almost assaultive viewing experience that keeps you constantly off balance. The TV-style introduction hurls the premise's details at you so fast, you can barely keep up, although Blomkamp almost imperceptibly phases out the faux-documentary format as the film progresses. You squirm at both the appearance of the Prawns and their mistreatment by human beings, and then hold your breath through adrenaline-charged action scenes. You constantly feel as though you're under attack from forces without and within. Relief only comes from the nurturing relationship between a "civilized" Prawn known as Christopher Johnson and his buggy son.

The film makes a few missteps, including the plot's reliance on some crazy coincidences and the mournful yet pompous African music that accompanies the paramilitary firefights. The portrayal of brutal, superstitious Nigerian gangsters sits uncomfortably in a film with such pointed racial metaphors. Overall, though, District 9 provides an assured combination of science-fiction concepts and action/horror set pieces. It's as suspenseful and immersive as Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, but also gives you something to think about. The Prawns may be an intelligent species, but would you want one marrying into your family?