California Literary Review

Movie Review: District 9


August 15th, 2009 at 2:10 pm

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District 9 Movie Poster
District 9

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

Wikus Van De Merwe – Sharlto Copley
Grey Bradnam – Jason Cope
Sarah Livingstone – Nathalie Boltt
Dr Katrina McKenzie – Sylvaine Strike

CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Still: District 9

“We Have Met the Enemy and…”

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 had a fantastic marketing campaign. The first trailer released contained surveillance footage of a tentacled creature handcuffed in an interrogation room while human investigators berated it with questions: What are you doing here? Why don’t you just leave? How do your weapons work? The creature’s face is blurred, as though, like a criminal on Cops, its identity must be protected. It responds to the interrogator’s questions willingly enough, but its language is a series of grumbles and clicks—completely unintelligible to the audience. Only when another version of the trailer leaked was the creature’s face seen in its entirety, its words subtitled: “We didn’t mean to land here. We had no choice. We mean you no harm. We just want to go home.”

The choice to first release the trailer without subtitles, to let the audience respond to the creatures by their appearance and foreign speech, is a fiercely intelligent marketing decision. District 9 is a summer-blockbuster science fiction film, but it is effectively about racial segregation, the depth of human cruelty, and ultimately apartheid.

Twenty-eight years before the film takes place, an alien craft came to hover, not above Chicago, Washington, or Manhattan, but in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa. The government investigates, finding the creatures “extremely malnourished” and “in need of help.” The nation responds by placing them in alien refugee camp District 9—which, by the time the film takes place, is a disgusting slum. The creatures are referred to as “prawns,” bottom feeders. They do in fact bear a resemblance to some kind of sea creature; although humanoid in shape, they are taller, thinner, and slimy, with small tentacles to create speech and evidently to aid in digestion. They are filmed eating raw meat, vomiting black fluid, and digging through the trash. Humans are disgusted by this decidedly uncivilized behavior, and riots force the government to relocate the aliens to another locale.

In a fictional August, 2010 (deliberately not far at all in the future), the South African government has hired Multi National United (MNU), a weapons manufacturing corporation, to perform the relocation. What eventually becomes apparent is that MNU has no desire to move the aliens; they want to learn how to use their weapons, which are linked to alien DNA and only fire in the arms of the creatures.

District 9 was developed and financed by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, and directed by and starring South Africans. It is perhaps the most dystopian vision of alien contact ever filmed: the aliens are not the enemy, we are. The humans in the film are horrid, cruel stereotypes, laughing as alien eggs pop like popcorn, shooting creatures at random, and torturing an innocent man to discover the meaning of the alien weapons. The aliens (one of whom is Christopher Johnson, a decidedly nondescript and very American name) are scammed, abused and tortured, living in a horrendous slum. Unlike in Independence Day, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or any number of other self-congratulatory sci-fi films, we are not fighting to save ourselves from these unthinkably pitiful creatures. We’re using, torturing, and abusing them. The scariest part of E.T. was the point at which scientists break into Elliott’s house in their faceless helmets and enormous white suits—at that moment, it became clear humans were the enemy. District 9 compounds that point, exposing the humans’ malice and the creatures’ vulnerability throughout the film.

The film’s documentary style is reminiscent of 2008’s blockbuster Cloverfield, minus the shaky-cam. The director chose to use steady-cam as often as possible, which brings the audience directly into the fracas and creates a realistic feel. The special effects are brilliant: the makeup and CGI are Oscar-worthy. Director Blomkamp’s previous credits include work as a 3D Animator on a small number of films, and this knowledge evidently helped him helm a movie whose visual feel is truly authentic. Though the effects are an integral part of the picture, they are not used to boast new technologies or to flaunt how cool the creatures are. Instead they’re employed to enhance the story and add to the documentary style of the movie.

Apartheid only ended in the 1990s, and South Africa is still rocked by its remaining waves. The film begins with interview footage: subjects range from people on street corners, to licensed social workers, to jailed white-collar criminals. They say, “Keep them separate from us,” “they must go away.” Signs bar aliens from certain areas of the city: “No non-human loitering,” and finally, most importantly, “We must learn from what happened.” It’s obvious the film is an allegory for segregation, its setting in Johannesburg only a finishing touch on the message. Although it feels formulaic at times (to be fair, science fiction as a genre appears hard-pressed to come up with new and different plots these days), the film’s style and special effects make it a good addition to the long list of high-quality sci-fi.

  • Tom

    As a screenwriter, I felt this movie was lacking in substance. It has obvious allusions, but it spent too much time on headshots and people exploding to get excited feelings from the viewers instead of making them think about the humans’ actions. It had the promise and opportunity to make a great thinking film, but ruined it by going for cheap laughs. I was wholly disappointed.

  • Mary

    I was very satisfied with this movie. Others that were leaving the movie expressed the same sentiments. I finally feel as if I’ve found an intelligent and realistic alien movie. The special effects were awesome.

  • Tony Payne

    I saw District 9 last night and though it was an excellent science fiction movie. It had drama, believable special effects and extreme action. This movie also make you think. A classic.

  • nolafwug

    Perhaps it’s just me but I found the lengthy torture scene intolerable. I started to feel sick and left the theater. Prior to that scene I was nodding off in my seat. Awful film!

  • Simon

    Very interesting film, I have been doing an MA in Applied Theology and Psychology and looking at the concept of Alien as archetype, (in the Jungain sense), and once again we see here a message from the deep, the concept of integration between human and alien, ego and shadow, my dissertation has been on a theological assessment of the alien abduction experience, and essentially the conclusion is that it may well be the projection of the essential religious archetype, into a technological arena, (i.e. sin, redemption, salvation, God, angels, demons etc etc), and here we have another movie along these lines, how do we read these “signs of the times”

  • Paul

    Great Movie, though I thought the first 20 minutes were a little too jokey (is that a word?). But from the moment that Wikus becomes infected the movie moves to another level. The first movie I have ever left where before I even reached the car I started thinking how a great Prequel and Sequel could be filmed and released as soon as possible without feeling contrived. I do have questions about some of the plot points, but those could be answered by the Prequel, but it made you think long after it was over. Heck I am still thinking about it today.

  • Jeryl

    Tom, your career as a screen writer is going to sux. If you think this film lacks in substance.

    the film was very well made and really makes “us” look critically at ourselves.

  • Chris

    Just saw the movie today and it was a great movie. Waiting to hear if there is going to be a sequel.

  • IOL

    Unfortunately it’s become apparent that many international filmgoers and critics miss out on the film’s subtleties. Apartheid’s legacy, xenophobic violence, Rainbow Nation rhetoric, class distinctions, virulent crime and other South African realities are represented.

    Director Neill Blompkamp, who lived in SA till he was 18, has succeeded in making a blockbuster that can only be fully appreciated by South Africans.

    Make sure that you see it. Hell, make sure that you see it twice.

  • Lori


  • Chris

    “As a screenwriter” – ha ha. Tom you missed the point that the film was made as a sci-fi film so that it could have a satirical racial subtext without being too political. It lacks “substance” for a reason…

  • Stridge

    I agree with IOL. There are a lot of subtleties that are over-looked by people that did not live it.

    As a recently emigrated South-African, it was nice to hear the Afrikaans accent again, especially when Wickus started swearing.

    But I was also reminded about the reasons why I left in the first place. Neill captured the violence, corruption and segregation very well, although obviously exaggerated slightly for movie purposes.

    I hope after people see this movie they will start thinking about what is really happening in South Africa…

  • Margarita

    I just went to see the movie, so powerful! Difficult to watch at some points but very true unfortunalty. It seems we, humans can not live in peace and for some reason need to hate some other race different o ours, or find stupid reasons to initiate a fight or a war. I loved the movie, the way it was filmed, the special effects, the humanity in it. We all should learn from it!!

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