Upon the ashes of his aborted "Halo" vidgame adaptation, producer Peter Jackson has erected "District 9," an enjoyably disgusting sci-fier set in and around a rubble-strewn war zone where extraterrestrial refugees have taken up indefinite residence. Better conceived and executed than one might expect from a low-budget rebound project, this grossly engrossing speculative fiction bears Jackson's blood-splattered fingerprints but also heralds first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp as a nimble talent to watch. A viral campaign reminiscent of the more gimmicky "Cloverfield" should draw hefty hordes initially, but positive notices and buzz will be required to sustain a B.O. invasion.
Shot and set in Blomkamp's native South Africa, "District 9" imagines a present-day scenario in which humans and aliens are forced into an uneasy co-existence and, predictably, bring out the violent worst in each other. As scripted by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, the result reps a remarkably cohesive hybrid of creature feature and satirical mockumentary that elaborates on the helmer's 2005 short "Alive in Jo'burg," borrows plot points from 1988's "Alien Nation" and takes its emotional cues from "E.T."
The film's faux-verite visual style, however, is very much a thing of the present, blending handheld HD camerawork with ersatz news coverage (complete with CNN-style text scrolls) and talking heads, plus actual archival footage from local news agencies, so as to suggest an urgent dispatch from the front lines of an interspecies war.
The introductory 15 minutes are swiftly paced, making modest demands on the viewer to keep up with the jiggly aesthetic and the particulars of the premise: Twenty years ago, an enormous spaceship came to rest over Johannesburg, now a sun-scorched urban wasteland. Since then, the ship's inhabitants, referred to as "prawns" -- four-legged insectoid beings that walk upright, secrete black goo and speak in subtitled grunts and gurgles -- have been moved into the titular ghetto and placed under the control of Multi-National United, a private corporation bent on cracking the secrets of the aliens' ultra-powerful weapons.
Into the fray strides Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an annoyingly chipper, boastful MNU operative overseeing the transfer of aliens to the more remote District 10. Blithely navigating cameramen through the creatures' filthy shack homes, Wikus accidentally comes into contact with an icky substance that, within hours, begins altering his DNA.
In the script's most ingenious gambit, the contaminated Wikus is suddenly coveted by MNU, as well as by a gang of Nigerian thugs and witch doctors who won't win the filmmakers any prizes for ethnic sensitivity. Forced into hiding, Wikus teams up with an intelligent, green-skinned prawn, Christopher Johnson (voiced by Jason Cope), and his kid, Little CJ, who's kinda cute in a hideous sort of way; together, they seek a way to reverse Wikus' alien metamorphosis and help the refugees return to their planet.
Rather than plunge the viewer immediately into unrelieved carnage and chaos, the film opens on a note of anxious uncertainty and tense humor as it probes the varying degrees of hostility in human-prawn relations. Though compelling throughout, "District 9" never becomes outright terrifying, largely because Blomkamp is less interested in exploiting his aliens for cheap scares than in holding up a mirror to our own bloodthirsty, xenophobic species.
That said, he doesn't skimp on the viscera; it's hard to watch the grisly climactic battle, with its parade of high-tech weaponry and exploding body parts, and not think of the horror cheapies Jackson was making pre-"Lord of the Rings." The pic does take a sentimental turn toward the end, with an excess of alien reaction shots that feel at odds with the much more authentic passion Blomkamp lovingly invests in his grotesque setpieces.
Copley makes the most of the only substantial human role -- and not an especially likable one at that -- with a twitchy, blustery, shifty-eyed performance of ferretlike intensity. Dropping F-bombs in Afrikaans-accented English, he ably conveys not only Wikus' physical transformation but also his mental deterioration and subsequent moral awakening; it's to the pic's credit that when Wikus is shown on the battlefield, his half-mutated body covered with festering wounds and alien protrusions, he has never seemed more profoundly human.
Lensed primarily on the Red-One camera, the film looks and sounds terrific, its seeming improvisation masking the obviously exhaustive planning required in all departments. The interactions between the aliens (a combo of f/x and old-fashioned prosthetics) and the humans are handled as confidently as anything in the "Transformers" movies and are arguably more impressive for d.p. Trent Opaloch's off-the-cuff shooting style. Clinton Shorter's percussive score is effective but at times over-reliant on the loud wailing/crooning that has become a too-easy signifier of Africa and other foreign locales.