District 9 (WingNut Films, 2009)

This incredibly satisfying Neill Blomkamp film was produced by Peter Jackson and reportedly shot almost exclusively on location in Johannesburg in Gauteng, South Africa. District 9 opens with documentary-style interviews and "archival" footage of the arrival of an enormous alien ship two decades before the story begins. The aliens aboard, disparagingly called "prawns" for their vaguely crustacean look, have been consigned to slumlike conditions in an aliens-only restricted area of Johannesburg called District 9.

At first mildly disconcerting, the documentary format of the beginning lulls one into a familiar zone of information received, filed away, accepted on some strange level as truth in a way not always quickly achieved in movies. We hear analysts and man-on-the-street interviews, and watch more faux-archival footage, forming an understanding of this near-future universe wherein a massive alien ship has parked -- permanently, it seems -- in the skies over Johannesburg. It loomed for months, silent and unchanging, until humans forced an exterior door and entered to find a million aliens dying in their own filth from an unexplained disease or condition. By the time our film opens, all aliens have been moved to the planet directly below, where they live in squalor, separated from humans by fences, language barriers, and intense prejudice.

The trailers I'd seen for this movie prepared me for a horror film. I'm extremely pleased to say that while there are horrifying aspects to the film, and folks wanting their body counts and bloodspurts will probably not be disappointed, this is most definitely not a horror film. While gritty, sometimes tragic, and often viscerally disgusting, this is a piece of Social SF in a very classic sense: here's a "what-if" scenario, where science (interstellar space travel, recombinant DNA technology, powerful weapons attuned to biology) causes people to act, and changes the social makeup of the human community in ways that are both totally new and eerily, heartrendingly familiar.

Without giving away salient plot or ruining the brilliant story reveal from unfolding through the mock-doc format, I will say that the development of the unlikely and, at least in the beginning, unlikeable hero is nothing short of brilliant. Flawed human comes up against flawed humanity.

It has been a relief and a great pleasure to see both District 9 and another unapologetically SF movie, Moon, released in my local theater in the same summer. Two fabulous gems for SF fans. Very different movies, with a few lorry-sized plot holes in each, but with massive payoffs for at least this Social SF fan.

[Camille Alexa]