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Make it Snappy: District 9

(Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe)

Midway through this story set in South Africa's Johannesburg, the ingratiating corporate gopher charged with being the public face of a massive forced removal himself takes refuge within the sprawling, sordid shanty-town. Things have gone terribly wrong. Back at the shack of one Christopher Johnson, whom he'd tried to evict earlier, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely) notices his host's young son chattering and peering at him. Already distraught, Wikus demands, "What's he doing?"

"He likes you," says Christopher.

"We are alike," says the little one, fascinated. "We're the same."

"We are not the same!" shrieks Wikus, leaping to his feet.

Wikus is still mostly right in this horrified declaration. Christopher and his son (who are CGI-conjured instead of played by actors) are aliens, two among the growing thousands who've been corralled for 28 years -- since their apparently disabled mothership stalled above the city where it still hangs mid-sky -- in an inner-city camp, ringed by East Berlin-like guard towers, gates, warning signs, razor wire and Multi National United's prowling, brutal, trigger-happy private security forces. The South Africans call the aliens "prawns," an epithet descriptive of their appearance.

Tensions and incidents of violence have risen during human and alien encounters, and the TV live-eye reports and interviews that provide much of the narrative thread and documentary-like ambiance include a pointed, bizarre parade of black South Africans voicing fearful hostility toward the aliens, resentment over the resources they consume, and vigorous support of an even greater Apartheid toward them. In their very public display of removing the aliens to a remote site with even fewer amenities than District 9 offers, MNU has carefully kept out of view their interest in accessing the aliens' weapons, which are coded to work only via contact with alien biology, and the Mengele-like medical experiments. So smarmy to start with that you want to slap him, Wikus actually seems to believe MNU's public relations line and is crudely racist -- if that would be the term -- in his officious condescension toward the aliens. Imagine his surprise when a chance encounter with a canister of alien fluid -- its versatile powers will also fuel that mother-ship if Christopher can get back up there -- first makes Wikus violently ill and then causes an alien hand and arm to sprout, replacing his own, just the beginning of his transformation.

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