Andy Bockelman: 'District 9' is harsh, realistic sci-fi

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Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

'District 9'

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Running time: 112 minutes

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope and Vanessa Haywood.

Now playing at the West Theater.

So many science fiction and horror films lately do everything they can to avoid having any kind of relevance toward the real world. But, the squalid, sordid landscape of "District 9" and its inhabitants has much more significance than any movie of its kind in recent years.

In the early 1980s, humanity has its first glimpse of alien technology when a gigantic spacecraft came to hover over Johannesburg, South Africa.

The throngs of beings aboard the ship are subsequently found by human authorities and moved into a government area called District 9.

After 20-odd years, the country is tired of playing host to these refugees, aggressive cockroach-like organisms referred to as "prawns" because of their scavenging habits. The task of dealing with the "non-humans" falls upon the security corporation Multinational United, with inexperienced office worker Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) leading the operation.

The prawns are not interested in being moved, as Wikus comes to find out. But, when he pokes his nose in where they don't want him, the resulting circumstances will change the lives of humans and non-humans alike.

The relatively unknown status of Copley only helps his believability as bumbling bureaucrat Wikus, a good-natured man who is too blinded by his company promotion to see what is really going on in "District 9." Improvising many of his lines, he provides a capable comic tone in what is a considerably dark narrative.

The severity of the setting looks even more legitimate with a number of pseudo interviews stylized in a "20/20" fashion, as "experts" praise and criticize the actions of MNU.

The footage of the prawns creates sympathy and revulsion, as many of them only wish to be left alone, while others wheel and deal with Nigerian warlords - who just happen to be squatting in the camp - for the things they desire most: weaponry, tire rubber and their favorite treat, cat food.

You will truly believe you're watching a documentary for the first quarter of the movie, with Wikus and his associates handling everything as if everything is perfectly routine, even though they are clearly out of their element. Luckily, we have the benefit of subtitles to interpret the series of clicks and groans emitted from the mouths - for lack of a better word - of the prawns.

After this setup, the story turns into a surreal, Kafkaesque nightmare on multiple levels, and it gets more brilliant from there. The subtext of the prawns becomes impossible to ignore as their plight begins to mirror historic social injustices, including Holocaust concentration camps, slavery and most notably, Apartheid. After all, it's no accident the film is set in South Africa, with the real-life District Six providing the inspiration for the action.

And speaking of action, don't think this is all thinly veiled social commentary - the second half of the movie contains such a rousing, visceral shoot-out that you'll barely remember who's who as body after body explodes. Okay, it sounds gross, but when half the cast looks like the bugs of "Starship Troopers," what do you expect?

Gruesome, gory and glib, "District 9" has the guts to do what so few alien movies do.

Not only does it cast humanity as callous and cruel, but it sticks with this characterization to the end, telling the hard truth: Mankind is a long way from being able to be trusted with the development of other cultures.

Just ask the prawns.

Now playing at the West Theater.

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