Were they not tentacled, claw-handed creatures from another planet with bodies like steel-plated shellfish, the ghetto-dwelling underclass in the madly original, cheekily political, altogether exciting District 9 would look much like any refugee population: They miss home, they're discriminated against, and they're driven by overcrowding, squalor, and hunger to acts of violence that make the local populace hate them even more and wish them good riddance. And that's exactly the point of this great mind-stretcher of a sci-fi actioner surely the first flying-saucer-and-mayhem movie in which aliens touch down on Earth by way of Johannesburg, rather than a more glamorous port of call. It's no accident that the aliens' massive spacecraft stalls out over South Africa, uniting the citizenry (with its own infamous history of us-against-them racism) against a population humans of every color can despise. South African-born director Neill Blomkamp knows the history of his homeland.
The political resonance is sharp. But the movie wears its allegorical flourishes lightly. A thinking person's sci-fi movie from an inventive director of shorts and TV commercials, District 9 revels in the fun of mashing up narrative styles, with much of the footage presented as if shot by a documentary team on the scene. (Cloverfield made merry with the same vérité conceit.) The action and there's plenty really takes off when a big corporation (any resemblance to Halliburton is...your call) is hired to move the creatures from the slumlike township in which they have been segregated to something like a concentration camp, something meaner and farther away.
Not in my backyard! cry the good people of Jo'burg about the crustacean-shaped species derogatorily called Prawns. A rule-bound company man named Wikus (played by Sharlto Copley in a killer feature-acting debut) is selected to implement the massive relocation. Understandably, nothing runs smoothly especially once Wikus starts poking around the shanty home of a Prawn who's a good dad to his shrimp of a kid and, it turns out, a powerful scientist with a homegrown workshop. Viva the Prawn revolution! What begins with ''news'' footage out of South Africa ends with headline news here at home: District 9 proves that there's intelligent alien life in the movie universe this summer. A