09/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Movie Review: District 9

The "wow" factor in Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is huge -- so much so that it would be easy to overlook what a soulful, tragically heroic story it is.

But then, with its brutal momentum and gross-out effects, it would be easy to skip past the depth with which Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell invest this film. Because, really, District 9 slams it home as a muscular action film -- humans vs. aliens, with aliens turning out to be the good guys -- not to mention as a sci-fi thriller.

District 9 starts from the premise that a massive alien mothership came to rest hovering in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1981. Not that it did anything except just float there; eventually, South African forces boarded the ship and evacuated more than a million sickly aliens back to Earth.

The aliens look like a cross between grasshoppers and shrimp. The South Africans refer to them derisively as "prawns." Unable to restart their mothership or do much else, the prawns are quarantined from the rest of the city, but become a nuisance -- to the point that the government decides to evict them from their Johannesburg ghetto to a concentration camp many miles away. Any resonance with or comparison to apartheid is wholly intentional.

The film initially is told in documentary form, blending the feeds from the corporate PR cameras and those of cable news networks. MNU, the corporate entity in charge of the eviction, is also the nation's largest weapons maker, with an agenda of its own. But that only becomes apparent as the story unfolds around its central character, a low-level functionary named Wikas (Sharlto Copley).

Wikas is put in charge of the massive eviction, but he also happens be the son-in-law of the MNU president, who knows what a tool Wikas is. Wikas is a figurehead, a clueless front man meant to distract attention from MNU's darker plans, which involve caches of alien weapons the humans seized when the prawns first arrived.

But in trying to evacuate the shantytown where the prawns live, Wikas accidentally is sprayed with an alien fluid that affects his DNA and begins to turn him into a prawn.

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