Adam B. Vary
August 13, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Back in the summer of 2008, a small film crew descended on a slum in South Africa and spent three months shooting documentary-style footage of a society in the midst of upheaval. Poverty, prejudice, government intolerance — the cameras captured all the great human injustices. And some nonhuman ones, too.

District 9, which opens on Aug. 14, may well turn out to be the most unlikely sci-fi blockbuster of the season. It has no stars. It was made for relatively little money ($30 million) by a 29-year-old South African-born director whom nobody’s ever heard of, Neill Blomkamp. And its action-packed plot is tinged with a surprising moral intelligence, as if a Paul Verhoeven film got a rewrite from Nelson Mandela. The movie, which is quite violent and R-rated, opens by laying out an extraordinary backstory: Decades ago, a massive spaceship appeared not over New York or Los Angeles, but Johannesburg. Rather than invade or lay waste to the city, the ship just parked there, motionless. Once the government got up the nerve to cut their way inside, they discovered the ship was filled with a million starving alien drones, helpless after their leaders had mysteriously died off. Despite a well-intentioned ”creature rights” effort, the humans lose patience with the ravenous, often-violent aliens and segregate them into a ghetto called District 9. As the present-day action begins, a venal corporation looking to profit from alien technology tasks a geeky emissary (newcomer Sharlto Copley, see sidebar) with evicting the creatures from their horrific shantytown and persuading them to move somewhere…worse. That emissary’s life will never be the same. Neither will his limbs or his left eye, thanks to a brush with some funky alien matter.

Strange to say, but the most satisfying sci-fi thrill ride of the summer turns out to be sort of an apartheid allegory. ”It’s an utterly original film,” says District 9‘s single A-list name, producer Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings). ”In an industry that’s looking to make movies out of every obscure TV show, or sequels, or videogames, you look at District 9 and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.”

Actually, sci-fi has a long tradition of addressing social issues through metaphor, but Jackson is right — recent examples are hard to find. Unless those space robots that turn into muscle cars in Transformers 2 are really a metaphor for the Algerian separatist movement, it’s been aeons since a sci-fi film made a point larger than Monday morning’s grosses (even J.J. Abrams’ relatively grown-up Star Trek didn’t get too weighty). It’s been longer since a serious space-alien picture has been so riveting and fun. Part Independence Day, part City of God, District 9 is a message movie that also happens to be packed with groundbreaking effects (the Prawns, as the tentacled aliens are called, look real enough to dip in cocktail sauce). Plus, it’s got plot twists that blow up all the old alien-invasion movie cliché and action sequences that trump most other cinema spectacles in theaters this summer — you know, the ones with budgets the size of TARP funds.

”I’m not trying to make something about apartheid that beats people over the head,” says Blomkamp. ”I’m just trying to portray science fiction in a way that feels like it might have actually been real.”

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