This movie opens with what can only be called an otherworldly pairing. There's a giant alien spacecraft, hovering in midair over a teeming Johannesburg, South Africa, like a sooty, upside-down mountain. And there's Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an entirely unprepossessing petty official hovering in front of the camera, describing what the thing is, what it's doing there, and why an idiot like him is sort of in charge of it.
Other talking heads chime in during a quickly edited montage, filmed in the mode of a television news special, a style stretched to the breaking point by the movie. But Wikus, rather surprisingly, turns out to be as central to the story as the aliens that issued from the bowels of the spacecraft: a sorry lot of bug-like creatures derogatorily called prawns — after the krill-like appearance of their snouts and carapaces.
I felt two things as a result of this setup, an emotional conflict that lasted throughout the movie. The first was intense curiosity at the intriguing sci-fi concept — what prawn really amounted to once they were properly investigated — and the other was impatience. This is how humanity handles its first close encounter? Like Barney Fife making an arrest? Wikus is our representative?
The spacecraft, Wikus tells us, arrived 20 years ago, stranding the prawns, worker-class aliens who've been confined in a sprawling, squalid shanty town that's turned into a vast landfill village. The prawns, we are told, love nothing better than cans of low-grade cat food — an early indication that the movie isn't totally on the up and up — selling their technology and trading with black-market warlords to get it, rioting when they can't.
More bad luck brought the aliens men such as Wikus, who gained his post by wedding the boss' daughter (Vanessa Haywood). The prawn presence has angered the local population, and Wikus leads a team of bureaucrats and military personnel into the alien encampment on a mission to relocate them, quickly bungling the operation while puffing himself up for the camera.
The movie races on this way as if cameramen wait around every corner, providing a play-by-play intended as a little documentary realism mixed with a lot of screwball comedy. The slapstick efforts of Wikus and his team make them seem more like members of a Monty Python revival troupe than a U.N.-style peacekeeping force. Meanwhile, the prawns busy themselves by rummaging through garbage heaps and wrestling over used tires. They've formed gangs, mark their territory with graffiti and answer the door with the prawn equivalent of Eddie Murphy's attitude in “Mister Robinson's Neighborhood.”
It's all so humorous you might forget to wonder such things as how they're supposed to evict nearly two million prawns by going door to door. A turning point comes when Wikus sprays himself in the face with some transformative alien DNA. The film drops some of the camp and goes into high-stakes action mode with Wikus on the run — an altogether more interesting father-prawn-and-son pair helping him escape.
“District 9” was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, once slated to helm the adaptation of “Halo,” and produced by Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings,” “King Kong”). It's admirable that the duo managed to get a big action fantasy in summer theaters that isn't based on some franchise, especially at the relative bargain price of $30 million. But the result is difficult to get a grip on, a genre parody that lurches so violently from goofy to vicious you'd think it was being directed by one of the prawns.
The setting and concept has been translated by some into a metaphor for apartheid, but the movie turns out to be less “Starship Troopers” and more “Reno 911!” meets “Alien.” Not bad if that's your thing, but I waited in vain for the moment when it would get serious.
The prawns and their condition end up mostly as a backdrop to another story of a white guy racing to save the day against evildoers, cut with a lot of comic relief. It was a bit of a letdown despite the exciting, frequently clever action sequences, because some previews painted a different picture, with examples of touching prawn negotiations and the like that must have been cut from the final release.
That omission might portend a sequel — something more terrifying to me now than any raging alien crustacean. “District 9” isn't boring, but unless “District 10” means more prawns and less Wikus, I'd rather pass. (R) 113 min. HHHII S