#201 District 9

(2009, Neill Blomkamp)

A while back, I reviewed Monsters, an alien invasion movie that acted as a clear allegory for US immigration policy. Well, it wasn’t the first movie of its kind, because only a year before, District 9 was released, and this time an alien invasion acted as an allegory for apartheid in South Africa.

In 1982, a gigantic spaceship descended over Johannesburg and suddenly stopped. An investigation team was sent in, discovering a large group of sick and malnourished aliens, who were immediately detained in a government camp known as District 9. After numerous conflicts between the aliens, derisively known as “prawns”, and the human population, the South African government sends in a private military contractor, led by bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), to move the prawns to an internment camp.

However, a prawn named Christopher (mo-cap by Jason Cope) has been working on something by collecting fluid from the spaceship’s debris. When Wikus comes in contact with this fluid, it has adverse effects on him, and he begins to see things from the prawns’ perspective.

I was seriously looking forward to District 9, just because it sounded like an interesting spin on the alien invasion genre. And I’m happy to say that it met my expectations, although it did surprise me. I expected a very politically charged movie about a conflict between human and prawn interests, but instead it was an entertaining sci-fi romp.

First things first: yes, this is one of those “humans are the real monsters” movies. When Christopher is introduced, he is instantly meant to be a sympathetic character (and he has an adorable child, which helps), while every human character in the movie is designed to be unlikeable, unpleasant or even outright meaningless. Wikus is the only sympathetic human character, but only after he’s undergone some major character development. This moral stance was expected (it is an allegory for apartheid, after all), but it was played well for the most part.

However, this can get a little tiresome, particularly as we move towards the climax of the movie. When every human character is just a moral vacuum, it does veer towards absurd. I find it hard to believe that not a single South African was concerned for the aliens’ well-being, even in a misunderstood way.

Instead, pretty much every human character (including Wikus at the start) seems to harbour an outright hatred of them, to the point where they seem to take great glee in the idea of murdering them or imprisoning them, or in the case of the Nigerian gangsters, eating them under the belief they would gain their “powers”. A few human sympathisers would have been nice. I get that it’s meant to be a comment on how horrific apartheid was, but it still felt excessive.

This doesn’t stop the movie from being stylish and entertaining as hell though. Filmed in a shaky documentary style, shifting into typical movie mode when Christopher is the focus, the movie’s universe feels very real. In fact, the documentary and news sections were easily the best way to get the movie’s backstory out of the way very quickly. We’re brought up to speed very quickly through a series of talking-heads vignettes, briefly explaining the previous twenty years and introducing us to Wikus.

It’s also very exciting at times. There’s real mystery in what’s happening to Wikus, and the action sequences are tense. The movie is tightly packaged and never once seems to drag. What’s more, the action sequences and documentary segments have been pieced together in a way that never clashes. They complement each other and switch seamlessly when required.

However, there are times when it feels like more could have been done with the concept. More political drama would have made things more interesting, since there are times when District 9 too easily slips into typical action movie territory.

There are also numerous plot issues that were raised. Christopher’s mysterious fluid is never really explained, which would be important since it apparently can do everything necessary to the plot. I would have liked more info on communication between the aliens and humans. And ultimately, I’d have liked a little more closure to the events of the movie, since it kind of ends with the sense that nothing has really been achieved by anyone.

That’s not to say I wasn’t entertained, because I was. District 9 is a great film, but is sadly not amazing. Good fun to watch, but it feels like it could have done more.

Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope & David James
Written by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
Produced by Peter Jackson & Carolynne Cunningham
Music by Clinton Shorter
Cinematography by Trent Opaloch
Edited by Julian Clarke

Favourite Scene: Anything with Christopher’s child. Cutest alien baby ever.
Scene That Bugged Me: When Christopher explains that he can use the fluid to reverse the fluid’s adverse effects on Wikus. No, I’m sorry, you lost me there.

Watch it if: You like action-packed allegories for apartheid
Avoid it if: You’re expecting a big alien war movie

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Posted on July 11, 2013, in 2000s, Action, Mockumentary, Political, Sci Fi, South Africa and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I liked district 9, it was entertaining and had some good fight scenes in a decently interesting plot that tantalized with political depth. Sadly the political depth in reality felt like my year 9 creative writing coursework (which at the time I though was really deep) and the explosions while good weren’t what I went into the movie asking for…

    It also had the issue it always felt like a remake, or literary adaption, and after watching I searched for the original thinking it would be what I was actually expecting of the movie, minus the pretty explosions. When it turned out there wasn’t an original I was actually disappointed (normally it’s the opposite), and I think that’s tainted my view of the movie. The whole time I was looking forward to reading the original, or watching the 1970s version where the prawns where little green men, and then I couldn’t…

    I don’t really have a conclusion to give, so instead I’ll say good review, as always.

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