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Originally published August 13, 2009 at 3:13 PM | Page modified August 13, 2009 at 7:16 PM

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Movie review

'District 9': Is it sci-fi, drama or comedy?

Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" is a busy, original science-fiction feature, but its edge is obscured by numbing, blow-everything-up action.

Special to the Seattle Times

Movie review2.5 stars

"District 9," with Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, William Allen Young. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, from a screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. 112 minutes. Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. Several theaters; see page 17.

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Interplanetary sociology lesson or broad satire? It's hard to tell the difference watching "District 9," an initially provocative science-fiction feature with comic as well as tragic edges equally obscured by numbing, blow-everything-up action.

Cowritten and directed by Johannesburg, South Africa, native Neill Blomkamp, a visual-effects artist who made a short ("Crossing the Line") last year with Peter Jackson (a producer on "District 9"), the film starts as a mock documentary about the eviction of a million-plus extraterrestrials from a South African shantytown.

Shaky cameras, faux interviews and alleged newsreel footage tell the story of how aliens arrived on Earth some years ago sick and dying and were at first treated to the largesse of their human hosts. Over time, however, with their empty spacecraft still hovering overhead, the creatures came to endure much of the blight, exploitation and resentment common to long-standing refugee communities.

When a bureaucrat named Wikus (Sharlto Copley) is accidentally exposed to a DNA-altering substance and begins metamorphosing into one of the creatures, the official documentary comes to an end. Yet, somewhat confusingly, "District 9" maintains a fly-on-the-wall look even after the story becomes an uninspired contest between scientists who want to harvest Wikus' changing parts and an alien plot to escape Earth.

The film's seamless effects create amazing, if often brutal, interactions between humans and nonhumans, a verisimilitude that — seen at a distance from a documentary approach — sometimes looks just as comic as it does dramatic.

Various Monty Python-like touches — including the aliens' addiction to cat food and a lead performance by Copley that feels like Michael Palin — intensify one's suspicion that Blomkamp is mixing laughter and grief.

Yet the film all but gets away from him as battles take over and opportunities to explore the story as more than the sum of its weapons disappears.

The final image of Wikus is powerful, yet not as meaningful as it might have been had "District 9" been made for adults as well as teenage boys.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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