Saturday, January 2, 2010

Wells, Clarke, and District 9

Continuing to catch up on 2009 science fiction movies, with nothing playing on first-run television this week, I saw District 9 the other night. The applause is justified.

First contact stories, aliens landing on Earth, have been a staple at least since H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds at the turn of 19th into the 20th century and continuing with Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End in the 1950s, V on television in the early 1980s (and again this year) and the Alien Nation movie in 1988. District 9 manages to tell such a story in an original, heart-tugging, humorous way. The aliens seem bedraggled, pathetic. They're kept in filthy camps after they arrive. And they're about to be deported to even worse conditions. With all of this happening in South Africa, the parallels to apartheid are obvious and well taken: we treat others badly, that seems to be in our human nature.

But, from the very beginning, there should have been a nagging question for we humans: if the aliens are so pathetic, how did they manage to build a huge star ship and get here?

As the eviction continues, we start to see some of the scientific brilliance of the aliens. Meanwhile, one of the relocation officers, Wikus, is exposed to an alien chemical that gradually transforms him into an alien. This brings District 9 into another classic science fiction category - humans transformed into aliens - which we saw to excellent effect less than two weeks ago, in Avatar. In Wikus's case, he wants to stop and reverse the transformation, and this leads to an alliance with an alien scientist on Earth and his son, and a breathtaking last 30 minutes of the movie.

District 9 does a fine job of continuing the tradition of Wells and Clarke, and makes a memorable contribution to the canon. I'm definitely up for a sequel.

4-min podcast review of District 9

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