District 9

Posted on December 22, 2009 at 7:45 am

This is the smartest alien movie in quite a while. But then movies about creatures from other planets are never about the aliens; they’re about the humans, and about what being human really means.
It has cool and creepy giant insect-looking aliens and there are very cool sci-fi weapons and shoot-outs and chases and space ships and a super-cool giant insect-robot thing, and it is very exciting and scary and sometimes extremely gross (but in a cool, sci-fi way). But, like all great science fiction, it is in aid of speculative allegory. The interactions between humans and aliens all the more powerful for being understated, taken for granted, and filmed in an intimate, low-key fashion that makes it feel like a documentary. Instead of running around and shrieking, this story posits an even more believable human reaction to an alien invasion — a bureaucratic one.
Humanity’s history sometimes seems to come down to the lines we draw, metaphorically and literally. Boundaries establish real estate ownership, communities, and countries, and battles over those boundaries have continued, in some cases, over millennia. We draw lines to distinguish ourselves from others and we draw lines to separate others from ourselves. This movie is not about an invasion from outer space. It is about life twenty years after an invasion. At first, the huge spaceship just hovered over Johannesburg. There was no attack, no communication of any kind. Finally, the South Africans went up to the ship and broke in to find the creatures badly malnourished and ill.
Two decades later, as this movie begins, the humans and aliens exist in uneasy proximity, assigned to “District 9,” fatuously assigned generic human names like “Christopher Johnson” and provided the flimsiest of “rights.” In the name of “humanitarianism,” they are living in the title area, little more than a junkyard. The government has outsourced the supervision responsibility to a contractor. The creatures are exploited by crooks, and called by derogatory epithets like “prawns” (the South African term for shrimp), based on their physical resemblance.
The alien population has grown and so the entire community is about to be “relocated” (evicted) to a new facility, a slum even more remote and meager than the current one, with tents instead of corrugated huts. Wikus Van De Merwe (brilliant newcomer Sharlto Copley) is selected by his boss, who is also his father-in-law, to oversee the “relocation.” This involves, for some absurd reason, going hut to hut with clipboards eliciting some form of “consent.” Copley, much of whose dialog is reportedly improvised, is terrific as the well-meaning but hopelessly overmatched bureaucrat, who has no idea of how offensive he is or how much he is missing as he talks to the company’s camera recording what he thinks will be his triumphant moment. When he unexpectedly inhales an alien substance, he is at first more worried about looking like he knows what he is doing on film than about any possible harm. But soon he is feeling sick. And then things really get out of, uh, hand.
This is where Copley really takes off as Wilkus has to draw on depths of courage, skepticism, analytic ability, and trust he never anticipated. He goes through external and internal changes raising questions about who and what is truly human and he shifts loyalties more than once. The movie shifts, too, combining the documentary footage with news accounts and other perspectives to show us what Wilkus is seeing but to get a glimpse of what lies ahead of him — or is chasing him.
Its setting in Johannesburg immediately suggests the metaphor of apartheid (and some critics have objected to it as a superficial or slanted portrayal — see links below). The film is more clever and ambitious than that. Just as the classic original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is claimed by both the right and the left as representing their side, this is a movie that is designed to be discussed and argued over. It is those conversations about Its meaning in light of the way that struggles with the notion of “the other” can inspire both the best and the worst of what it means to be human.

Parents should know that this film has constant very strong and graphic sci-fi violence, guns and other weapons, very disturbing and gross images, guns, hand-to-hand fighting, sexual references including prostitution and inter-species sex, and constant strong language.
Family discussion: What parallels is the film trying to draw to historic treatment of groups of humans considered undesirable? How should the South Africans have responded to the aliens? If you like the film — or if you don’t — you should read the reviews of Armond White and DC Movie Girl, whose strong objections to the film make compelling reading.
If you like this, try: “Independence Day” and “Blade Runner”

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Action/Adventure Science-Fiction

25 Replies to “District 9”

  1. Well-written and thoughtful review. I would say one thing more directly, though: this film is not for children. The concepts of violence and human evil are more disturbing on a psychological level, but it is graphic nonetheless. Somehow the film manages to be gory without turning gratuitous. It is also very, very intense. If your child is especially desensitized to violence, he might be fine. Though it seems a waste to go and enjoy the spectacular visuals and effects without any appreciation for the depth of empathy that this film somehow manages to inspire in viewers for the aliens, and perhaps even for those within our own species who we might truthfully consider ugly, dirty, stupid, and generally unwanted.

  2. Thanks for a beautiful comment, Evelyn. I will be posting more about the film and some controversy it has already prompted in the next few days, so please check back and let me know what you think. And I agree, it is for mature teens like high school seniors and adults only.

  3. As a sci-fi fan, I was disappointed. Yet another monster movie filmed in “shakyvision.” The now-it’s-a-documentary, now-it’s-a-film, now-it’s-a-documentary technique got to be downright distracting.
    And beyond the main bureaucrat, the humans were one dimensional. The bugs were more fleshed out as characters, if that makes any sense. But a lot of the movie didn’t make sense, to me anyway.

  4. Thanks for the comment, your name. It will be very helpful to readers trying to decide whether the movie is right for them. I appreciative it very much.

  5. I just to want thank you, for the link. 🙂
    Mine is one of the few, I think who has voiced these particular objections, so I am happy to see people reading and possibly considering it.

  6. Wow, thanks to you DCMovieGirl! I am a huge fan of your blog. I have another post specifically on the issues raised by you and some other critics about this movie coming on Monday with more detail.

  7. By the way, “Your Name” is really me, Big Dave. Somehow I didn’t get my comment in on time and the screen refreshed or something like that and it wiped out my name. You have to REALLY want to comment here with all the trickery afoot.

  8. Good reviews or bad, I am going to see this with a friend this evening. I wonder how much of this will remind me of “Ender’s Game”, a fantastic book that also uses insect-like aliens as the enemy. Ender’s game will some day make a great movie that might make a curious double bill with this.
    Another Alien-as-objective-critter is “Enemy Mine” – a tremendous film where the alien is lizard-like. It is easy to hate or victimize someone who is ugly or completely different. I wonder how would a film maker portray an alien of surpassing-but-not-human beauty? And what if they also turned on us – a betrayal of our objective standards as well as our subjective expectations.

  9. I share your love for “Enemy Mine,” as we”ve mentioned before, jestrfyl — I’ll be interested to know whether “District 9” reminds you of it. It did me. Looking forward to your reaction! And I’d love to see a movie on the theme you pose — why don’t you write a screenplay?

  10. I saw the movie yesterday and posted my remarks on the racism on the page that deals with that topic. I agree that movie has earned a A-. It is not perfect, but it will stay with me a long time and it was effective. Things that impressed me were many.
    One was that people and Prawns understood each other without trying to mimic each others language. I heard not only English, but also “click” from the African region as well as a couple of other indigenous languages. Well done and a good way to surmount the language barrier without resort to some version of Douglass Adam’s Babel Fish. The same is true for the unique features of the weaponry. The spaceship looked more terran/western than I might have expected from beings such as the Prawns.
    I thought the transition from typical middle class, mid-level bureaucracy to dealing with the front line of poverty and violence was an amusing kick at all governments that try to handle things this was (as did our own in “working with” many Native American nations and tribes).
    Making the interplay of the relationships part of the story was tremendous. Again, it borrowed from “Enemy Mine” but it is forgivable.
    The cat food thing was a bit cheesy – a quick fix to a writer’s problem. Something even more process would have been more likely. Given their metabolisms and anatomy, more plant and less flesh would have been even more likely (though cat food is as much filler as meat). I thought they were really onto something when the Prawns were eating the tires, but they left that behind. Too bad, it would have changed some of the dynamic in our differences.
    This is NOT a movie for little kids. No Happy Meals will come from this film – except maybe for Red Lobster or Long John Silver (yuck! urp!). The graphic violence is way over the top and the transition from mockumentary to third person omniscient would be confusing.
    It is definitely one of the best movies of the summer. A well earned A-.
    OK, the end was great but very flawed. It would have been far more effective if he had not transformed completely. It would have been much more cool to have a half-transition, as in “the Fly” (“Help me!!”)The potential for a sequel exists and I hope they explore that. The half transition would make more sense with the story line. Otherwise all of the Prawn could just as well be transitional beings from other planets and have no allegiance to their home planet. OK, I know this is a geek-like attention to detail, but (if you excuse the intentional pun) it bugs me.
    As to my own story/script – I may just try that I have a couple of others I am fooling around with. But this may go into the mix as well.

  11. Hmmm, I’m not impressed with most of the movie.
    I agree that Sharlto Copley is brilliant; he carries a lot of the movie, and does it well. The analogous apartheid situation will also provoke considerable (and very interesting) discussion. The visuals are gritty and reasonably realistic, a refreshing change from a history high-tech glowing aliens.
    But the movie seems a sequence of wonderful, inspired explorations of unusual situations, connected by poorly contrived plot devices that make little sense (at best), detract from the flow of the movie, and leave the viewer more confused by the unexplainable actions of the protagonists and less empathetic towards them. For these reasons, I wouldn’t give the movie better than a B-.
    I agree with you all that “Enemy Mine” was an absolutely brilliant movie, and quite underappreciated, with a compelling plot that managed to move itself cleanly and compellingly from introduction to finale without the use of bizarre half-thought-out plot devices.

  12. Thanks, Mr. Ellison. Good to hear from another fan of the neglected gem, “Enemy Mine.” I appreciate your thoughtful comment very much.

  13. This was a truly revolutionary Sci Fi film. I love the difference in story type from the typical aliens either invade earth or are far too happy and benevolent. This seems much more realistic and sadly shows what could well be the true human reaction. One thing I would add is that you need a very strong stomach to watch this film through to the end and one mustn’t be put off by foul images or guttural alien sounds. Some, who don’t have such accolades may find themselves leaving the film before it’s end. I was intrigued by the transformation of one of the central figures and am curious as to how it will ultimately be resolved in a possible sequel. I give this one a solid A.

  14. District 9 is a good movie, though I can’t quite say I enjoyed watching it. I found it deeply disturbing. Watching the atrocities visited upon the aliens, by MNU and in a banal careless way by the Wikus character, Wikus’ reversal of fortune and the atrocities visited upon him, I saw that Wikus and the Prawns were stand ins for the victims of every purge, pogrom, ethnic cleansing, or witch hunt in human history. The weapons testing sequence is painfully evocative of the Milgram experiments, with the added horror that the death and torture are real. Wikus faces the prospect of death by vivisection from both the ultra modern corporate scientists of MNU and the voodoo cult of a Nigerian gangster. For the same reason in each case. The MNU bosses have lost their humanity in service of promoting the Organization, employing violent sociopath mercenaries to enforce their will. The Nigerians are primitive cultists who have not found their humanity in the first place. There is also the depiction of the Prawns living in extreme poverty, living in a shantytown built on a garbage dump. Haiti? Bangladesh?
    Having qualified that District 9 is much closer to a Holocaust documentary than The X Files, do see this movie. The characters are real. Even the Prawns, who are mostly illiterate drones, except for the one who I surmise was the ship’s pilot. The special effects work well, and the action sequences that feature the Prawn weapons are exciting. The evolving relationship between Wikus and the Prawn “Christopher Johnson” is rewarding. The movie ends well. I did not say happily. The documentary style filmig works well.
    My only objection to the premise is from an international relations perspective. An alien spaceship, a prize beyond measure, parks over Johannesburg, South Africa. The UN security council does not move to occupy Johannesburg with a combined (we found something to agree on ) US, NATO, Chinese, Warsaw Pact (supposedly arrived 20 years ago), French, Indian, Canadian, whatever peacekeeping force. Or World War III ensues because the aforementioned can’t agree on the details. Or one of the aforementioned unilaterally decides to intervene with a nuclear attack on Johannesburg. Likely see scenario 2 after this. I conclude the Prawns should have landed in Sweden. The story would have been much happier.

  15. Thanks very much, L Schuman. This is one of the most thoughtful assessments of the movie I have seen. I particularly like your drawing a connection between the dual barbarity of the two sides that both want to dissect the aliens and Wikus as a way to gain power for themselves. And I agree entirely with your conclusion that this is not supposed to be a representation of just one historic example of bigotry and oppression, but all of them.

  16. The main human character is named Wikus Van De Merwe. The human name for the main alien character is Christopher Johnson. Let me know if you’d like any of the other names.

  17. Very good assessment of the movie. I have read several reviews that focused on District 9’s overt and covert racism. They were particularly focused on the way the Nigerians were characterized as violent, criminal, and superstitious. I thought that the portrayal of the White Corporate Masters was very telling and generally not commented on. My guess is that it assumed that this group was properly portrayed as greedy, violent (nothing personal, just business), with murder and genocide as an integral component of general business ethics. Why comment on common truth? At least the Nigerians had a sense of humor. I love the multi-racial diversity of the corporate drones, where incompetence is tolerated as long as you fit in and are considered a good “boy”.
    It is also interesting to note the lack of involvement by the government. South African, UN, etc. The state basically ceded all authority to the corporation to handle their “alien problem”. Hmmm, How many corporate contractors are involved in our overseas wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? When things become screwed up, it was the corporate goons that got out of hand.
    All and all, a very good sci-fi movie worth discussing.

  18. Nell
    I do enjoy reading old reviews and comments. But I would be interested in knowing what you think of the DVD packaging. Are there any extras that are worth attention – or that should be ignored? Has the transfer from film to digital been good or was something lost? Were any changes made since the theatrical release? Is it more or less powerful than it was on a big screen (acts of violence and horror are less intimidating when sitting in a comfortable familiar chair with the opportunity to stop when needed).
    I also realize this may mean sitting through a film a second time (and time is the most precious and least negotiable commodity we have). But any thoughts you have along these lines would be a help.
    I hope you have shoveled out and gotten some release from the icy grip – before the next lesser storm winds its way toward you (O those 7 day waves of lousy weather).

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