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Film review: Entertaining 'District 9' is a smart sci-fi thriller

DISTRICT 9 — ★★★ — Sharlto Copley, Louis Minnaar; rated R (violence, gore, profanity, torture, drugs, vulgarity, slurs); in general release

The faux-documentary style employed by "District 9" may remind some of earlier low-budget genre films. In fact, in many ways it's the "Blair Witch Project" of alien invasion movies.

This science-fiction thriller even subverts its own genre in much the same way that "Blair Witch" did, though that fact and the presence of its big-name producer (Peter Jackson) may make some overrate the film's importance.

Of course, the movie does satisfy the cravings for a smarter sci-fi movie and does have some rewarding aspects. The headier moments suggest what would happen if you fused elements of the film and television series "Alien Nation" with Franz Kafka's novella "The Metamorphosis."

However, things do get messy toward the end, both in terms of content and story. There are also a few gaping plot holes and some unfortunate video game contrivances. (The film originally began as a "Halo" video game movie and still contains some residue from that scrapped project.)

A fleshed-out version of Neill Blomkamp's 2005 short film "Alive in Joburg," this speculative science-fiction movie is set in South Africa.

A gigantic alien craft appeared in the skies over Johannesburg more than 20 years earlier.

While the ship has remained aloft and appears to be inactive, alien refugees — called "prawns" derisively by the human population — have fled the ship and have settled into a sprawling community camp/city called District 9.

However, since then it has become a crime-ridden slum. Governmental agencies plan to herd the prawns to a larger, fenced-in camp — one that is well away from the other, human populace.

The leader of this operation, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), has been exposed to an alien contaminant and appears to be changing into something else.

Interestingly, Blomkamp and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell have given us a main character who's not particularly likable or sympathetic.

And the extraterrestrial xenophobia material — an obvious allusion to South Africa's apartheid history — might not be thinly veiled, but it isn't bash-you-over-the-head clumsy either.

"District 9" is rated R and features strong violent action and imagery (gunplay and shootings, vehicular and explosive mayhem, brawling), some pretty graphic and gory imagery, strong sexual language (profanity and other sexually suggestive references), a scene depicting torture and interrogation, drug content and references (hypodermic use and sedatives), and derogatory slurs and language based on nationality and alien heritage. Running time: 112 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com