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September 13, 2009

Sci-fi flick doesn’t offer redemption

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP


The sci-fi hit “District 9” is 30 percent social statement (a la Ray Bradbury) and 70 percent blast ’em to Hades violence and special effects.

An alien spaceship breaks down over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the government sequesters the aliens in a refugee camp that quickly turns into a restive slum. White South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp is, of course, holding a mirror up to apartheid. The two-legged, erect, human-sized aliens that look like giant shrimp are pejoratively called “prawns.”

The movie is filmed in a gritty, pulsing, hand-held cinema-verite style. It’s hard to look away, and the acting is superb. Much of it is presented as a video news magazine/ diary that makes it seem even more real. “D9” feels like a European film without the “auteur” arbitrariness, and like a Hollywood action film without the greatly overblown pyrotechnics and soundtrack. The CGI creatures are completely and seamlessly integrated into the live action as never before.

Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a government operative, is in charge of resettling aliens in a new camp. He likes his job way too much, and has prawns killed with impunity. This almost-goofy overachiever transforms (in more ways than one) into a desperate fugitive in a matter of hours. The storyline is very imaginative, and the film world can toast a fresh talent in the not-yet-30 Blomkamp (who has a background in visual effects)!

A thought-provoking subplot involving bio-tech, power-lust and armaments firmly embeds “D9’s” subject matter in the sad realities of (often black market) international commerce. Just change up the players and the goods a little bit and we’ve got reality happening somewhere in the world this very moment.

“D9” is rated R for “bloody violence and pervasive language.” It’s no more violent than today’s general movie violence, but there’s a lot of, well, carnage. Alien weapons vaporize/liquefy people like juicy tomatoes. And there’s a lot of vomit.

Nigerians come off looking very, very bad in this movie. This would never happen in a contemporary American-made film. There’s a huge buzz online that “D9” is racist. Seems to me this is the real “alien” story here.

Burns, who ministers in Chicago, has a philosophy/theology degree from St. John’s University, N.Y., and studied screenwriting at the University of California-Los Angeles.