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August 23, 2009

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Dazzling action makes you think

ALL the hype surrounding the buzzed-about "District 9?is justified.

This is one intense, intelligent, well-crafted action movie °?- one that dazzles the eye with seamless special effects but also makes you think without preaching.

Like the excellent "Moon?from earlier this summer, "District 9?has the aesthetic trappings of science fiction but it's more of a character drama, an examination of how a man responds when he's forced to confront his identity during extraordinary circumstances.

Aliens who arrived here in their spaceship more than 20 years ago have now been quarantined in cramped and dangerous slums; the nerdy bureaucrat charged with moving them to new quarters (the tremendous Sharlto Copley) undergoes a physical and emotional transformation in the process.

What's amazing is that this visceral yet philosophically sophisticated film is the first feature from music-video director Neill Blomkamp, who co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell.

Co-producer Peter Jackson is the big name attached to this refreshingly star-free project and Weta Digital, the company behind Jackson's "Lord of the Rings?trilogy, provided intricate effects.

Blomkamp set "District 9?in Johannesburg where he was born and raised, so it's easy to assume his themes of racial division are a metaphor for apartheid. But its quick bursts of violence and urban warfare also feel like a statement on the war in Iraq; a private corporation tasked with keeping aliens away from humans is reminiscent of Blackwater.

Blomkamp creates a sensation of relevance and immediacy by combining fake news footage, real TV clips and documentary-style, hand-held camerawork.

Meanwhile, the fantastic sight of a spaceship hovering over Johannesburg °?- trapped and unable to return home, its former inhabitants scurrying about on the ground in squalor ?creates a steady source of tension.

But he also builds suspense early on with a flurry of interviews from experts and insiders, all foreshadowing that something horrible has happened in the slum known as District 9, and that Copley's character, Wikus van der Merwe, was at the center of it.

Wikus seems a rather ordinary sort in his own on-camera interviews: sunny, jumpy, a bit like Ricky Gervais?character, David Brent, on the British version of "The Office.?He lives in a nondescript suburban house with his wife; his father-in-law is his boss. Everything seems to be in order.

But what's fascinating is watching his true nature emerge as he interacts with the aliens once he enters their camp and tries to evict them. He becomes slick, conniving, almost cruel. And what's even more riveting is the way his dramatic exposure to these creatures ?known pejoratively as "prawns?for their antenna and hard shells ?doesn't make him a better person all of a sudden.

Revealing more would ruin the many twists and revelations in store but suffice to say that Wikus adapts ?learning to survive ?in a place where there are no easy answers.


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