August 14, 2009 at 1:00 am

Adam Graham Film Review: 'District 9' -- GRADE: A-

Thrilling 'District 9' injects some brains into the summer cineplex

The aliens in "District 9" are disparagingly called "prawns" and live in squalor since first getting stuck on Earth 29 years earlier. (TriStar Pictures photos)

You've seen alien invasion flicks before, and you've seen more than your share of summer blockbusters. But you've never seen anything quite like "District 9."

A wildly inventive take on the summer-popcorn alien thriller, "District 9" offers a bold, visionary spin on a genre that, after years of going through the motions, could use a shot in the arm.

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp's film expertly mixes action, humanity and heart with an entity too often missing from cinema in the warm months: brains. "District 9" takes an art-film approach to fanboy and sci-fi geek fare. And it immediately establishes 29-year-old Blomkamp -- formerly a visual effects guy on "Smallville" -- as a director to watch.

The film pops you into modern day Johannesburg, South Africa, which happens to be Blomkamp's hometown, where aliens have invaded. Not today, not as the film opens, but 29 years ago. Meanwhile, their spaceship hovers high above the city and has become a permanent fixture in the sky.

This is the film's smartest conceit: Too often, alien films are about first contact, but here, the novelty of the beings has worn off, and humans want them gone. They've been rounded up into a shantytown ghetto -- District 9 -- where they scavenge the grounds like refugees, devouring cat food and living in squalor. Humans look down on them, dismissively referring to them as "prawns." The only interest we have in them is their highly advanced weaponry, which cannot be fired by humans.

The film unfolds in effective, you-are-there faux documentary style, and follows Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley, in a deeply resonant performance) as he leads a government operation to evict the aliens from District 9. The story unfolds through news broadcasts and "found" government footage, and the grainy, low-budget look adds a sense of realism to the proceedings.

The aliens themselves speak in a garbled language that sounds like radio interference, and the film's special-effects team does a wondrous job of bringing them to life. Their most important feature is their downturned eyes, which convey the sadness they feel for their situation and their time spent trapped as prisoners on Earth.

"District 9" takes on a lot, including themes of big government and racial tolerance. If it bites off a bit more than it can chew, that's OK, because "District 9" has an over-abundance of the one thing lacking from too many blow-em-up, summertime action extravaganzas: ambition.

Smart and stylish but rarely showy, "District 9" is the summer movie you've been waiting for. By keeping its feet planted firmly on the ground, it takes viewers out of this world.

agraham@detnews.com">agraham@detnews.com (313) 222-2284

District 9 of the movie's title refers to the slum area of South ... (TriStar Pictures photos)