If you're looking for the late-summer special-effects action fantasy with big franchise potential, forget about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. (You already forgot? Fine.) Instead, proceed directly to District 9, a grimy little scare-fi thriller from South Africa, hitherto unknown as a production center for really cool movies. The picture bears the imprimatur of another gifted outsider, Peter Jackson, who with The Lord of the Rings made New Zealand his own little Hollywood. But the real star is director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp, 29, who proves with his first feature that no genre is so tarnished by overuse and misuse that it can't be revived by a smart kid with fresh ideas.
Blomkamp pours his clever notions into a familiar mold: a story of extraterrestrials who come to Earth and are treated like outlaws. Sound schizophrenic? Not to Blomkamp, who grew up in South Africa (before moving to Vancouver at 18 to work in special effects) and who knew from boyhood that he wanted to be a filmmaker. "On one side of my mind you have this place with a crazy racial background, and on the other side of my brain you have this science-fiction geek," he says. "And then one day the two just mixed, and I decided I wanted to do science fiction in South Africa."
A giant spaceship hovers over a world capital, just as in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Only this time it's Johannesburg, not Washington. And the beings that emerge aren't elegant, superior dudes like Michael Rennie and Keanu Reeves; they're large, icky insect types, with wriggling worms where their noses might be. Nor do they issue the lofty proclamation that the peoples of the world must resolve to live in peace (or we'll all be killed). Instead, these space things, more than a million of them, hang around for 20 years in a ratty part of Joburg called District 9 while their vehicle awaits the spare parts it needs to make the trip home.
By now, most earthlings are less afraid than annoyed; they see the illegal aliens as just another class of lowlife troublemakers. Because they also look like creepy crustaceans, they are slapped with the derisive term prawns. They possess weapons no human can fire, but a gang of Nigerian thugs buys up most of the stash anyway, while supplying the creatures with women who'll engage in interspecies prostitution. When local resentment reaches its boiling point, a private firm gets a government contract to cattle-herd the furriners to a new settlement, far from the city. To enforce this transgalactic apartheid, the head of the company calls on his naive, underachieving but very game son-in-law Wikus (Sharlto Copley).
It's a dirty job, and it gets dirtier when Wikus is infected with some alien gookum and his left arm turns creature-like. Now he's hunted by both his old firm and the Nigerians who want his prawn arm to fire the space weapons. Classic Hitchcock vectors: a man on the run from two adversaries. In '60s TV-series terms, he's the fugitive and the one-armed man. Out of options, he must find help from the species he and his kind have subjugated and slaughtered. In this monster movie, the monster is us.