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Only a Prawn in Their Game.

Neil Blomkamp’s inventive genre mishmash District 9 is a strange and compelling critter alright. On its surface, just as 1988’s Alien Nation was basically a sci-fi revamp of In the Heat of the Night, this is first and foremost the central “E.T.s as undesirables” conceit of Alien Nation as filtered through the sad story of South Africa’s real-life District Six.

Here, the aliens in question — having arrived in a stalled ship under horrifying refugee conditions and been deemed “Prawns” by the disgusted human population — are festering in a slum outside Johannesburg, where they are mostly starving, causing trouble, indulging drug addictions (in their case, cat food), and/or getting exploited by the local (Nigerian) criminal element. Our protagonist in this tale — after you see him at work, you wouldn’t really call him “our hero” — is one Wikus van der Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley), a eager-to-please bureaucrat for Multi-National United (MNU), who on account of family connections is tasked with supervising the relocation of District 9 to what amounts to a tented concentration camp, farther away from humankind. (Wikus’ other appointed task: to acquire for the Halliburton-like MNU as much alien-tech as possible for the multinational’s very profitable weapons division.)

But there’s more to District 9 than just a socially-conscious apartheid fable (and describing it as follows will give away some mild spoilers.) The head of the film, its first forty minutes or so, feels like a Paul Greengrass movie such as Bloody Sunday: a grim, gripping tale of social and political injustice (and, as per the Bournes, powerful and sinister multinationals) told in naturalistic, faux-documentary style. But the thorax of District 9 delves deeper into old-school David Cronenberg territory, with all the gooey orifices, transformational anxiety, and throbbing gristle that usually portends. (There’s a touch of Blomkamp’s mentor, the Dead Alive-era Peter Jackson, here as well — particularly in those ruthless energy weapons.) And, by the time we get to the abdomen, we’re suddenly watching a George Miller or Jim Cameron-style actioner, with more than enough visceral excitement to keep the antennae twitching.

All stitched together, District 9 is quite a remarkable feat of summer sensation. In the end, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed the more self-contained experiences of Moon and The Hurt Locker more. And I might quibble here and there with Blomkamp’s execution — the lapses back to documentary-style talking heads at times feels like cheap and easy exposition, and cute kid plot-devices are cute kid plot-devices no matter the species involved. But, unlike Terminator: Salvation and (I presume) its Hasbro-minded competition this summer, Blomkamp’s District 9 actually manages to deftly recombine familiar sci-fi elements into something that feels new and original. In short, it’s the clever, gory, mildly thought-provoking, and indisputably kick-ass action thrill-ride genre fans have been waiting for all season.

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