Despite its unassuming, nondescript title, "District 9" is one of the most talked about of this summer's movie releases, and for good reason.

"District 9" takes place in South Africa, where a spaceship hovers over the outskirts of Johannesburg after depositing a horrendous horde of really ugly-looking aliens.

These are not the cute cousins of E.T.

Imagine, instead, a giant version of a preying mantis that walks upright like a human being.

Because the aliens have super-human strength and frequently lose their temper, a particularly lethal combination for humans, they are quarantined in a prison camp known as District 9.

The government has hired one of those modern mercenary firms of 21st century warfare, here called Multi-National United (MNU), to guard the aliens, now numbering 1.8 million and disparagingly called "prawns," and seeming to constantly be creating mayhem.

When it's decided to relocate the aliens, things get really messy.

An MNU official, a mild-mannered, but jumpy, technocrat, named Wikus (Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of the resettlement to, where else?, District 10.

First, Wikus has a run-in with some nasty bug juice.

Faster than you can say Kafka's "Metamorphosis," or Jeff Goldblum in "The Fly," Wikus begins to transforming into a prawn.

And Wikus becomes a pawn in the MNU plan to capture alien weapons technology, where alien DNA unlocks the firepower.

Wikus befriends an alien, improbably named Christopher Johnson, and his son, Little CJ. It's a credit to the film-makers that these are sympathetic characters, appearances notwithstanding.

The plot of "District 9" is too good to reveal more here. The really scary parts involve the Nigerian mafia. The humor involves the prawns' hunger for cat food, cans and all, and subtitles for the alien's language.

While much has been made of the filming in South African and symbolic parallels between the treatment of the aliens and the former system of apartheid, "District 9" is, on one level, nothing more than a darn good sci-fi film.

There are numerous similarities to other sci-fi films, including "Robocop" (the robotic metal battle suit), "War of the Worlds" (family in peril), "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (the alien's motivation), "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (the hovering spacecraft), "Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield" (the omnipresent, and very shaky, camera, of the mockumentary), "Brazil" (the protagonist's isolation), "Frankenstein" (the bio-lab experiments on Wikus) and "28 Days" (Wikus' worsening virus).

In addition, "District 9" is the ultimate buddy film, if you can consider an alien a buddy.

Newcomer Sharlto Copley as Wikus hits the right combination of naivety and paranoia.

What makes "District 9" work and gives the storyline a degree of credibility is the film's point of view, which is that of a documentary film, where authorities (portrayed by actors very deadpan convincingly) are interviewed about the alien relocation and what went wrong. The television news reports that are devised also bolsters the believability.

"District 9" producer Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings") tapped first-time director Neill Blomkamp, working from a screenplay he cowrote with newcomer Terri Tatchell.

The special effects, with seamless Compter Generated Imagery for the prawns, are spectacular, thanks to Jackson's own Weta special effects company based in New Zealand.

"District 9" is one place you won't want on your list of vacation destinations.

"District 9": MPAA Rated R (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian) for bloody violence and pervasive language; Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller; Run time: 1 hr., 52 mins.; Distributed by TriStar-SonyPictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: The score for "District 9" was recorded by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Unreel, Sept. 11: Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly and Crispin Glover star in "9," in a world where humans are all watched over by machines of not so loving grace. "I Can Do Bad All By Myself" returns Tyler Perry to the big screen as Big Mama, and also stars Mary J. Blige and Gladys Knight. "Whiteout" stars Kate Beckinsale as a Marine set to capture a killer. "Sorority Row" stars Rumer Willis, one of several sorority sisters whose house is stalked from beyond.

Email Paul Willistein at pwillistein@tnonline.com [1]

Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes