Blomkamp’s somber District 9 brings a new twist to the alien invasion science fiction trope

In a world of giant Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, comic adaptations, horror rehashes and TV remakes, District 9 stands as one of the most original movies in recent years.

Stylish and innovative, this film is a perfect conclusion to the otherwise substandard summer movie season, which for the most part consisted of only franchise continuations.

Despite the aliens, District 9 is not a run-of-the-mill sci-fi movie. Through the use of a documentary style and a cast of unknowns, the film creates a sense of realism that films rarely attempt.

It begins with our planet receiving visitors from another world. Naturally, humans of the world look to this occasion with a mix of hope and fear, anticipating either a new era of technological enlightenment or devastating war.

Instead, what they receive are refugees; aliens far away from home, desperately trying to survive.

They come to our world starved and frightened, an all too familiar story in Earth’s history. The aliens, while insect-like and slightly grotesque, invoke pathos through their seemingly emaciated bodies and large, naive eyes.

They’re referred to derogatorily as “prawns” and forced into District 9, living in cramped, filthy conditions where they must forage for garbage.

The allegories for racism flow throughout the movie. The clear references to the cruelty of apartheid regime in South Africa are displayed in the suffering and inhumane treatment of the “prawns.”

At the same time, their suffering is universalized. In the eviction scene, for example, the “prawns” are forced to sign contracts to be evicted, a concept that they do not even understand, by their foreign oppressors.

Humans are portrayed rather unflatteringly with gangs and corporations manipulating the visitors and the general human population treating them as a nuisance with no sense of “humanity.” Several scenes depict the gross and horrific mistreatment of the aliens in the name of profit. The greed for their weaponry knows no bounds.

The movie skillfully interweaves both a general narrative about the struggle between the two species and the stories of the individuals most directly involved in the struggle.

At the heart of this is the man in charge of the eviction, Wilkus Van De Merwe. An optimist attempting to do what he thinks is best for everyone, Wilkus is accidentally infused with alien DNA, leaving him capable of using alien weaponry and making him the target of human weapons dealers. He has no choice but to go and find a cure in the one place that made him this way: District 9.

The relative anonymity of its cast serves to highlight the realism. While it won’t nab any Oscars in acting, the performances are all solid and, combined with the CGI cast of aliens, helps maintain a believable movie.

While subverting many popular elements of sci-fi, District 9 still maintains a high level of suspense. The documentary and “shaky cam” aspect only serve to heighten tension, particularly in the more brutal and chaotic medical scenes. Putting more emphasis on the scene and not on the shaky cinematography, the film induces suspense without nausea (as in Cloverfield). The film gradually loses the emphasis on a documentary feel in favor of a more traditional approach as the climax approaches.

Despite the occasionally disjointed feel due to style, the film never feels confusing and the viewer never feels lost in the film’s intricate narrative. However, unlike the joyous summer blockbusters one usually finds, this film is ultimately a tragedy, particularly in its commentary on the nature of humanity and its slight skepticism in relation to social progress.

While the film is superb in all aspects of style and substance, I must warn the viewer that the advertising campaign does not accurately portray the film. If one goes in expecting a sci-fi destruction bonanza like Transformers, one will be sorely disappointed. This is an action film with an emphasis on story and substance and while the action is exhilarating, it does not occur until the latter half of the film.

The latter half of District 9 switches somewhat to standard Hollywood action fare, but the themes of racism and the human condition continue to the end of the film. An open-ended conclusion leaves the viewer to ponder about these philosophical questions.

District 9, while satisfying the need for thrill and action, rises above standard sci-fi fare with its philosophical questions and deep, sociological themes. Anyone who wishes to experience high-brow science fiction is encouraged to watch this film.


District 9

Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi

Starring: Sharlto Copley

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Rating: R

Released: August 21, 2009

Our take: **** 1/2 (out of 5)