Stunning sci fi in a district of its own

<strong>Film<br />DISTRICT 9<br />Cert: 15</strong><br /><br />FINALLY &ndash; a summer blockbuster worthy of the name. District 9, in which aliens visit earth and end up staying, is equal parts riveting sci fi saga, thrilling action adventure and intelligent, darkly comic social satire. For my money it&rsquo;s the best science fiction film of the decade, and up with the best since Blade Runner. It&rsquo;s all the more surprising &ndash; and satisfying &ndash; that it comes not from Hollywood, but from South Africa.<br /><br />The film is set in an alternative reality, in which over 20 years ago a vast, mysterious alien space ship arrived on earth, and has hovered over Johannesburg ever since, apparently stuck. Its stranded occupants, a million ugly, tentacled critters given the nickname &ldquo;prawns&rdquo; for their resemblance to low-level sea life, are forced into a squalid shantytown outside the city called District 9. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the country&rsquo;s famous townships, but blacks and whites find themselves united in wishing the aliens gone.<br /><br />The unlikely protagonist of the film (everything about the film is unlikely, which is what makes its success the more gratifying) is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an Afrikaans pen pusher with more than a touch of David Brent about him. An operative for MNU, the private company that manages the aliens, he leads an operation to shift them to a new location &ndash; and that&rsquo;s when things go very, very wrong for Wikus.<br /><br />Debut director Neill Blomkamp stirs in TV news-style footage, CCTV, video journals and interviews for a documentary effect. The film twists through crunching action, bio-schlock, corporate conspiracy, and the kind of deliciously ghoulish horror for which producer Peter &ldquo;Lord of the Rings&rdquo; Jackson made his name. There&rsquo;s more imagination and entertainment in two minutes of District 9 than in this year&rsquo;s Terminator and Batman films combined, and it was made for a fraction of their budgets. A cinematic landmark.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Timothy Barber<br /><br /><strong>(500) DAYS OF SUMMER<br />Cert: 12A</strong><br /><br />IT&rsquo;S EASY to see why this &ldquo;indie&rdquo; romcom has been charming American viewers. It manages to be both cute and profound, wholesome and a bit grungy. Even a little edgy &ndash; but nothing that takes you out of your romcom comfort zone.<br /><br />Its success &ndash; and coolness &ndash; comes down to two factors. One: the idea that not every perfect relationship on screen ends happily &ndash; it doesn&rsquo;t take disaster, illness or even adultery for something to just not quite work. We know this to be true in life, but it&rsquo;s strangely piquant to see it played out on screen. Two: the actors. Zooey Deschanel embodies all that is compelling about indie romance &ndash; she&rsquo;s pure cool in a way that only American girls can be, with her seductive voice inflections, gigantic blue eyes and mysterious listlessness. She&rsquo;s the Summer of the title, and the obsession of Tom, played by the charmingly regular, floppy-haired Joseph Gordon Levitt.<br /><br />The action takes place in LA, and flips through a non-chronological selection of moments in the 500 days of Tom&rsquo;s obsession with Summer, of which about two-thirds is a relationship. Well, it&rsquo;s not quite a relationship. Summer doesn&rsquo;t believe in love and isn&rsquo;t looking for anything serious, which she tells Tom clearly, and remains firm about. In a refreshing reversal of gender cliches, it&rsquo;s Tom that has always thought life was nothing without The One, and feels overwhelmingly that Summer is said One. He worships her, vows to get her back when she dumps him, and is spurned. He spirals into a funk of despair, gets sacked from his job as a greeting card writer (he studied to be an architect anyway &ndash; something Summer always encouraged him to pursue) and lives off Twinkies and whisky. And when Summer&rsquo;s life leads her in an unexpected direction, Tom almost loses faith in love. That&rsquo;s an almost, of course.<br /><br />Complete with animation and the occasional Fifties-style cartoon rendering of the characters, director Mark Webb has pulled off an ironic romcom that still manages to uplift and leave you feeling that anything is possible. It&rsquo;s clever and extremely enjoyable.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Zoe Strimpel<br /><br /><strong>THE HURT LOCKER<br />Cert: 15</strong><br /><br />ITIS being hailed as the finest movie yet to be inspired by the Iraq war, but let&rsquo;s face it &ndash; the Hurt Locker&rsquo;s not up against much competition in that category. And while it&rsquo;s an absolute nail-biter, and a completely convincing depiction of the mind-warping stresses and terrors endured by grunts in the warzone, it makes no attempt to grapple with the whys and wherefores of the conflict. It&rsquo;s actually all the better for it.<br /><br />Previously-unknown actor Jeremy Renner plays Sgt Will James, a veteran US bomb-disposal specialist leading a small team with the job of clearing away countless lethal booby-traps in war-torn Baghdad. While the team&rsquo;s emotions are scraped raw by the unimaginable pressures of their situation, director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) keeps things tightly locked down &ndash; it&rsquo;s massively claustrophobic stuff. Despite striking cameos from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes, Renner imposes himself brilliantly in this engrossing tale of men pushed to the very edge.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; TB