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District 9's alien refugees find out the hard way that people suck

On the surface, District 9 is about aliens. But its subtext is pretty clear to anyone familiar with segregation. District 9 is about oppression. And standing up for rights. And wanting to go home. It's a rebel movie, but the rebels are aliens who have been crammed into a South African slum for more than 20 years.

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp (from a short film he made in 2005), District 9 came together after he and producer Peter Jackson couldn't get their Halo movie off the ground. And in a way, the kinda creepy and totally bloody District 9 plays a lot like Halo, with some very awesome guns capable of blasting the hell out of anything that gets in their way.

But District 9 is more subtle than the hit videogame franchise, building conflict and a sense of confinement before turning into a limb-severing showdown between military pricks, displaced aliens and a good-guy researcher who's slowly transforming into one of the creatures.

A massive mothership shows up over Johannesburg one day and then hovers over the city for months. Officials eventually cut their way into the stalled spacecraft and find more than a million scared and starving aliens. They're derogatorily nicknamed prawns (they resemble six-foot shrimp that stand on their hind legs), given human names (shades of slavery here) and are confined to a rundown part of town called District 9.

Over the years, tensions rise between residents and the prawns, who can't return to their planet because they ran out of fuel. Then Multi-National United officials — led by dorky and enthusiastic Wikus (Sharlto Copley), who has more heart than his big-business bosses — begin handing out eviction notices to the aliens and transferring them to "relocation camps."

The aliens just want to go home; the military wants to unlock the secrets of their advanced weaponry. And after Wikus is infected during a skirmish with a prawn, he starts turning into one and becomes a target of the increasingly hostile MNU.

It's not hard to sympathize with the aliens, who are exploited by locals and abused by officials. They possess human traits (they're proud, protective of their children and suspicious of legal documents), have a taste for cat food and can communicate with people. They're also capable of decapitating someone with a swift kick.

The movie's handheld-camera, documentary- style approach is played out by now, but it serves District 9's narrative, even if it sorta breaks the rules during the movie's final act. By the end, the big-ass weapons come out, and District 9 swerves a little into popcorn-movie territory. But not even a ginormous robot suit can divert from the film's undertones of what it means to be an alien in a place where you've lived for so long.

mgallucci@clevescene.com

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