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District 9

A 2009 science fiction / action film directed by Neill Blomkamp.

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When Humanity Is the Real Monstrosity...

  • Aug 26, 2009

The idea of using science fiction and horror stories as a way of discussing taboo or controversial social, political, and religious themes is nothing new. Since the birth of the horror genre, which came into being after the popularity of 18th century gothic romance took off, and since science fiction was first acknowledged as a genre unto itself in the late 19th century, the two have often dealt with issues that were considered to be of the utmost social importance while disguising their message in a fictional reality. In the new sci-fi / horror film District 9, director Neill Blomkamp takes the themes and ideas behind his 2005 short film Alive in Joburg and attempts to translate them into a full-length feature film. Blomkamp, who makes his feature debut with District 9, has had experience in both film and television, though mainly in the capacity of a special effects consultant and animator. Blomkamp was born in South Africa in 1979 and clearly his experiences there and his observation of racism have informed his worldview. In District 9, which was inspired by the historical events of District 6 in Cape Town, Africa, he examines government-enforced and organized racism and apartheid through the use of science fiction facades. Using the events at District 6 as a basis for the film, Blomkamp sets his film in Johannesburg in the present and creates a military-run site called District 9 as the film’s main setting. There an organization has created a slum for aliens who landed in Johannesburg twenty-something years earlier. The film takes elements of history and combines them with typical alien and monster movie scenarios in order to explain how people of a different race, or in this case species, are treated as less-than-human and subjugated by racist laws. The film also draws on the idea of transformation, both in terms of a physical change as well as a change of perspective, in order to create an emotional backbone for the story.
Racial segregation with aliens as metaphors...
In 1982, an alien ship settled itself in the shies above Johannesburg, South Africa. There it lay dormant, at least in appearances from the outside, for three months until government agents cut into the ship and there to their shock find thousands of alien life forms starving nearly to death. MNU, a military contractor whose main interest is the aliens’ advanced weapons technology, decides to create an area called District 9 for the aliens to move to where they will be given the opportunity to live alongside humans and form their own society. But this doesn’t go well. District 9 is overpopulated, impoverished, and not more than an elaborate slum. There the aliens scavenge for food and for possessions and frequently come into volatile contact with their human neighbors, many of whom seek to exploit the aliens. The aliens themselves are no angels as they create an underground trade system in District 9. The aliens, who seem to have a heightened sense of taste, take to buying cat food, which produce for them a narcotic high. They also sell their weapons, which unbeknownst to the buyers can only be operated by the aliens, on the black market in exchange for cat food or as a trade-off to the local pimps who supply them with human prostitutes.
Over twenty-five years later, the slums have become a filthy environment that hosts all varieties of illegal activity. After protests from anti-alien groups who demand that the aliens be removed, MNU comes to the decision to relocate the aliens. The aliens, who are given the derogatory name prawns because of their resemblance to a cricket species found in South Africa, which is nicknamed the Parktown Prawn, have become both victims and aggressors in District 9 and their presence has become a catalyst for civil unrest. While groups of protestors declare that the aliens are victims of inter-species prejudice, MNU prepares to relocate the aliens, now nearing 2 million, to District 10 just outside of Johannesburg. Heading up this operation is field operative Wikus van de
Merwe, a conservative and unassuming sycophant at MNU, who is married to the boss’ daughter. Wikus, who at first appears to be mild-manner, reveals a strong and violent prejudice against the “prawns” as he serves them notice of their eviction. He even participates in vile “abortions” in which alien eggs are incinerated and while the alien babies inside scream and their eggs burst open, he jokingly says that the sound reminds him of popping corn. But Wikas perception of the aliens is about to change dramatically.
During a raid of what he believes to be a weapons manufactory, Wikas accidentally sprays himself in the face with a black liquid from a small silver canister. Over the next 72 hours Wikus will go through the ultimate transformation, both physically and mentally.
Soon Wikus begins to feel ill and he starts spewing up a thick black liquid. Earlier during the raid he had broken his arm and it had to be placed in a cast and sling. Later when Wikus goes to the doctor’s office to have it looked at, he is horrified to see that his left hand and lower arm have mutated into that of an alien. He is becoming one of them. A “prawn”. A freak. When the heads of MNU discover that Wikus is metamorphosing into an alien, they immediately realize that a great opportunity has beset them. The aliens’ advanced weaponry was designed so that only the aliens DNA could activate them and make them usable. MNU had been trying to find a way to duplicate the alien technology or at least bypass the DNA coding on the weapons, but had been unsuccessful. Now before them they had a man with both human and alien DNA and by manipulating his genetics they might be able to make the weapons functional in the hands of human soldiers. The financial prospects of new technologically superior alien technology being without limits, MNU decides that Wikus would be better off dead and his DNA will be a great asset in their experiments. When Wikus is restrained and put on an operation table so that they can harvest his organs, he manages to break free and barely escapes MNU’s security.
Wikus hides in the one place that he feels he will be safe from MNU: the slums of District 9. There he takes shelter in the hut where he first conducted the raid and where he was exposed to the canister’s liquid. Now a fugitive and being hunted down by his wife’s father, Wikus is a man of desperation. He knows that he’ll be forever changed into an alien unless he can find a cure for himself. Wikus, being hunted by MNU soldiers and on the verge of collapse, hides in one of the alien’s huts. Earlier he had attempted to evict the Christopher Johnson, the alien whose hut he now sought refuge in, and had even threatened Christopher’s son. But when Christopher sees that Wikus has been exposed to the liquid in the canister and is becoming like them, he lets Wikus stay. Wikus learns that the canister had been in Christopher’s possession before he had confiscated it and that it was necessary in order for the aliens to access their ship and leave. He also learns that the only hope for him to become fully human again is for him to go to the ship and undergo a procedure that can’t be performed elsewhere. Wikus and Christopher agree, though with some reservations about each other, that they must unite and try to find a way of retrieving the canister from MNU’s headquarters. But can they succeed in returning the aliens to their planet and curing Wikus before his transformation becomes permanent? Not only will Wikus and Christopher have to confront the sadistic prejudices of the MNU soldiers, but they will also have to stay one step ahead of a Nigerian street gang that practice black magic and believe that Wikus is the key in their being able to become aliens too.

Wikus as a fugitive...
The film’s cast features mostly unknown actors, all of which give strong performances despite the two-dimensional characters. The cast is headed by Sharlto Copley as Wikus van de Merwe. In his role, Sharlto does well in making the character an infuriating bigot and cipher, but as his character evolves, literally and figuratively, he becomes a kind of everyman who audiences will forgive and possibly cheer for.
The story, which takes a lot of ideas from other sci-fi films, is nothing original and lacks the invention that one would hope for in a director’s first film. Though District 9 is deeply flawed, it does feature amazing visual imagery and earns my respect simply for being so bold. I only wish that the ideas had been better executed and that Blomkamp had taken more time filling out the gaps in the screenplay.
Before wading knee-deep into a lengthy analysis, first let me say that after all of the buzz surrounding this film and all of the praise that I’ve either read or heard, I was hoping for something more profound in District 9. I should also say that other than a few reviews I’d read prior to seeing the film, I knew virtually nothing about its premise. So I came to the cinema with no real expectations of what I was going to be seeing; only a hope that I would enjoy it. And ultimately I did, to a degree, but I was also very disappointed that there wasn’t more to the story. The problems with the screenplay begin to manifest themselves early on. Why did the aliens come to Earth? Why were they starving themselves inside of the ship when they could have easily gotten food from the animals in the rain forests of Africa? How did the alien weapons get circulated into society when the government had first access to the aliens’ ship? If the aliens like cat food so much, why don’t they just buy it in the bulk instead of trading their weapons for it?
None of these questions were given legitimate answers and this made for a frustrating viewing as I continued to spot oversights and plot holes in the story’s logic that were never addressed by the film makers.
I was also slightly annoyed by how similar the film was to other science fiction and horror films that have come out in the past twenty or so years.
The film opens and closes with a series of scripted interviews and documentary-style footage that was very reminiscent of both The Blair Witch Project and the more recent Cloverfield. The film also feels derivative of David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, in which a man undergoes a tragic and grotesque transformation into a human-sized insect. I was reminded of another film as well. The idea of a man with certain prejudices being caught up in a conflict between aliens and humans was used in the Wolfgang Petersen film Enemy Mine. In that film a human soldier and an alien soldier must join forces in order to survive and in doing so they learn to overcome their personal prejudices and hatred of one another. All in all, District 9 is something of an oddity, being a combination of all of these films.
Another issue that I took up with the film is a bit more philosophical. Since the story is meant to act as a parable for the apartheid in Africa and is meant to be a testament to the destructive powers of racism, I felt that portraying the aliens as grotesque and frankly, unpleasant for the first half of the picture was counter-intuitive to the film’s moral message. Now, I realize that to a certain degree this was a way of introducing audiences to the aliens from the common perception that they were stupid, disgusting, insect-like creatures with no admirable qualities whatsoever and that the film makers would then spend the rest of the film attempting to subvert that notion of the aliens being inferior. But what bothered me the most is that in their efforts to create a species of aliens that was as flawed as human beings are, they failed to demonstrate their positive characteristics. If the aliens are meant to be sympathetic, then why do they have weapons that are so destructive? It would be a mistake to present either the humans or the aliens as being an idealized people or culture, so naturally the director has chosen to show the shortcomings of both species, but in his endeavor to portray both sides as complex and equally imperfect he’s made both species rather unlikable. Maybe they should just kill each other off and leave the Earth to the cats and their tasty cat food.

In the shadow of a space craft...
As for the film’s strengths, they lie predominantly in the realm of special effects and visual storytelling. There is a philosophical depth and an emotional core to this film, but they are both undermined by the director’s use of gratuitous and gory violence. In the end, District 9 is admirable for its message even if that message comes off as being muddled and contradictory. It is also admirable for its visual scope and for its willingness to be a big budget alien-versus-humanity story, which will likely never reach the mainstream appeal of more conventional and upbeat sci-fi films. Whatever the future holds for Neill Blomkamp’s career, I hope that his next film will be absent of abundant special effects and will focus more on characters and plot development. Undoubtedly, District 9 will become a cult classic and with good reason, but I also have predictions that it will spawn a series of inferior sequels and will capitalize on its own success until the novelty has worn off. Here’s to doomsday scenarios preserving artistic integrity!

Alien mothership... Contact... Not really human anymore... Hope?

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August 31, 2010
i see what you mean about the "message" behind the movie since things like concentration camps and government aided segregation do happen, but i also think your right that the movie fell a little short of actually getting the message across. and the holes in the plot where really obvious. still one of the best alien movies to come out in quite a while....great review, it really made me go hmmmmm....
August 31, 2010
you'd better make this review "spiffier" since I featured it more than once in the COL :)
August 31, 2010
Yeah, it's weird but there had been more photos.
April 22, 2010
Another great review, I liked this one.
April 22, 2010
I think I was a little let down by its predictability and the fact that it was hyped up so much, but still it wasn't a bad flick by any means.
August 27, 2009
thanks for the review--it really filled in some gaps for me and I agree with you re: the film's strengths. I would have liked more development of the Wikus guy at least. And a bit more dimension and glimpse of what motivated the wife's father--other than money and greed.
August 28, 2009
My thoughts exactly.
September 26, 2009
Nice Mario!
August 27, 2009
excellent write up. I do understand your analysis of the plot, and I do see why some folks may think that the screenplay may appear to be lazy because it neglected to give details as to how the aliens had destructive weapons and why they came to Earth...which is why I deducted a star from my rating; I scored this a 3.86., which I rounded up to 4 stars.

My take is that since the film has that doco-style, it is seen from the human's point of view, and we all know the press can't have the answers. It was meant to promote an atmosphere of mystery. As for the weapons, the ship was locked tight with the aliens malnourished; I wouldn't be surprised if they were prisoners. That they came to Earth with the small ship hidden suggests that "Christopher" may have fled. Remember it also probably took several years for the humans to decode their language.... I still look forward to the sequel which I suspect would see the side of the story from the aliens' viewpoint. No doubt they think humans are ugly. Despite some flaws, I still think it is a great movie. I love the adult treatment rather than stooping to the usual crowd-pleasing mechanics.
August 28, 2009
Showing the story from the aliens' perspective would have made all the difference for me and would have given the film at least a 4. And like you, I was impressed that a major studio would allow a first-time director to do a big budget alien movie that will likely not meet with mainstream success from the dumbed-down romantic comedy crowds or the MTV / Michael Bay action crowds. Overall the film is admirable but deeply flawed in its execution.
August 26, 2009
I had problems with it too, and I was thinking in terms of a 3.5 but rounding up to a 4 for good intentions. I just thought it was muddled and couldn't make up its mind about which movie it was. I did like it though. My main problem was that the documentary style of the beginning tipped the ending off to me in about 15 minutes--and I really hate that.
August 26, 2009
For me the documentary-stuff wasn't a problem because it gave away the ending since I knew how this story was going to go from the very beginning... it was just obvious. For me the problem was that it was too much like other films that have come out recently. Even the last Romero film was done like that.
August 27, 2009
One of the many problems.
August 27, 2009
Well, most  importantly it's the way others talk about him. I think some may actually have used  the past tense so it's pretty easy to figure out that something has happened to him and from there it's an easy jump to the logical conclusion.  There are post event interviews with many people but not with out protagonist. Lots of little things that just give it away. But primarily it's the way the talking heads at the beginning talk about him.
August 28, 2009
Yeah, they talked about him in the past tense and anyone familiar with documentaries where the person the documentary is about has died (or in this case disappeared because he's an alien), they always start off showing them as a bumbling but lovable oaf and then dig into the depths of the character so that by the time they undergo tragedy you've developed an emotional investment in them. Also, the documentary combined interview footage from the aliens' arrival, then from Wikus' early days preparing for the eviction, and then people talking about him as though he was no longer around. So you know that the footage is culled from three time periods and that what we're seeing with Wikus has already happened essentially. Like Queenie said, they gave it away.
August 29, 2009
I hate it when they do that. Or maybe like I've said before, I've just seen to many movies and these things just jump out at me. I don't want to see them but I can't help it. When the conventions of film making aren't being followed it's usually for the most obvious reason.
August 26, 2009
I saw this film, and I did enjoy it. I agree with you that it was derivative, but I liked quite a bit about the way the aliens were handled. One comment I heard after the movie was "It really makes you proud to be human, doesn't it?" Yeah, it did leave that bad taste in the mouth. The one film it made me think of most was NIGHTBREED, based on Clive Barker's novel CABAL. The humans were the monsters in that one as well. Excellent review of a not to shabby movie. Well done
August 26, 2009
Thanks. Are you a Clive Barker fan? I honestly haven't read any of his work (I'm rarely ever found reading any contemporary fiction, other than a handful of authors), but I've seen quite a few films based on his books and some were quite good.
August 26, 2009
Actually, Barker is way too blood and gore oriented for me. Even his writing depends on gore rather than plot and character. I liked his THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW and I really liked CABAL which became the movie NIGHTBREED. Other than that, no, I am not particularly a fan. He is a good writer, when he wants to be. I just like more plot driven rather than blood and sex driven.
August 26, 2009
Agreed. That's why I rarely venture into the world of contemporary horror novels or films. No depth or psychology, just cheap thrills and an overabundance of gore and sex. Those things can be fun, if they're handled with irony or in a tongue in cheek way, but often it's all just superfluous eye candy and no brains.
August 26, 2009
If you can find them, the novels of Charles Grant are great. Grant died in 2006, and most of his best stuff is out of print, but if you can get them, they are the equal of anyone and they have little superfluous sex or gore. Just quietly scary stuff. One I highly recommend is SOMETHING STIRS. It is just plain creepy with very little blood, gore or sex.
August 26, 2009
Hmmm, intriguing. I like the sounds of that. There's a little used bookstore about ten miles from where I live and they carry just about everything, so I'll check there. : )
August 26, 2009
If you can also find them, the Oxrun Station novels are really wonderful, too. Creepy, character and plot driven and so much fun to read. I envy you reading Grant for the first time. He was a real eye opener for me, after King and Barker.
More District 9 reviews
review by . April 22, 2011
Okay, I'm a pretty big sci-fi geek. I watch numerous sci-fi shows and I'm a big fan of most sci-fi films. I enjoy watching science fiction be used as a platform that explores deep personal truths about the human condition. Every good sci-fi movie reveals something deep about ourselves, but amongst the good ones, there are terrible sci-fi movies that never should have seen the light of day. I'm normally an easy reviewer and I'll even give a bad sci-fi film some credit every once in …
review by . December 24, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
District 9 is one of those movies that I bought on DVD (though I soon upgraded to blu-ray) on a whim and wasn't burned by a bad movie. This was one of those times that I wish I watched the movie in theaters, and that when the hype behind a hit movie is largely justified.      STORY      In 1982, a giant alien ship grinds to a halt above Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens are referred to negatively as “Prawns” for their scavenger-like personalities, …
review by . August 14, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
   Co-produced by Peter Jackson, the acclaimed director of the “Lord of the Rings” and directed by Neil Blomkamp; ‘DISTRICT 9” screams “Cult Classic”. Blomkamp has adapted his short film called “Alive in Joberg” and has crafted a film loosely inspired by the events of District 6 in South Africa. “District 9” collects some familiar pieces of history, science fiction elements, and some cool action in a tale which is mainly a retelling …
Quick Tip by . June 01, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
Despite the movie's less-than-subtle messages about humanity, I found this to be a strong film because of the fact that the characters have decent levels of depth to them, which is one of the main deciding factors for why I like District 9.  In particular, I found Wikus's change in character, physically and in terms of personality, the most interesting.  The cool action scenes and visual aesthetics to the Prawn technology are also helping factors with this.      …
review by . April 09, 2011
  District 9 begins when a very large star ship lands in South Africa during 1982. These are aliens called "the prawns" and are initially welcomed by the human race. Now, twenty-eight years after this, the aliens are stuck and mistreated in a beat up, worthless camp called District 9. The Multi-National United, otherwise known as MNU, cares very little for the alien race, but has strong interest in their advanced weapons. An MNU field operative, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) …
review by . June 07, 2010
The movie started off slow and directed like it was a documentary.  A mothership of aliens comes to Earth and stays hovered over  South Africa.  A military orginazation (NMU) sends a team of helicopters and moves the aliens to live in District 9, a hovel fillled area.  The aliens are called "prawns" and like to eat catfood.  The aliens also bring very advanced weapons that NMU is very interested in.  Unfortunately only the aliens can fire them because the …
review by . December 30, 2009
One of the greatest science fiction films of all time...
I've seen Sci-Fi films that try and fail miserable to get that emotional reaction from audience by telling a recycled story and a dried up plot. But I'm finally happy to report that there is such a Si-Fi film, and this film is called "District 9."          District 9 tells the story of a lone man, who is infected by an alien biotechnology and him and him alone becomes the only hope for the salvation of the aliens. It's a powerful film that resonates with Science …
review by . May 23, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
'District 9' is one of those movies that blindsided me - I had heard a little about it before seeing it, but few specifics. I was excited and hopeful, usually signs that I'm about to be disappointed. Not only did the film not disappoint, it went well beyond any expectations I had of it.    In terms of story, it's a film where very little is as it initially seems. You are presented with a deceptively simple scenario - a large alien craft has sort of broken down over Johannesburg, …
review by . August 20, 2009
movie pic
I went into this movie feeling slightly mislead, but in a good way. I'm not sure why, but I thought this was going to be some shallow, action oriented sci-fi movie that's only really enjoyable in theaters. I left feeling like I had seen one of the better sci-fi movies of the past few years. I could tell my friend was disappointed leaving the theater; he's the kind of person who loves terror, destruction and mayhem...yes, he's evil. I, on the other hand, enjoy a certain level of sophistication …
review by . August 17, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
I must be honest.  When I first saw previews for District 9 my only thought was that it was remarkable how Transformers 2, GI Joe and District 9 could all look like the same preview.  Yet the more I began to learn about it, the more I realized that unlike the other two, District 9 might actually be a good movie.  A fun movie that could be more than meets the eye.  The previews don't make the film look like much.  Not in my eyes, but then again... the preview …
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A provocative science fiction drama,District 9 boasts an original story that gets a little lost in blow-'em-up mayhem. Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, District 9 begins as a mock documentary about the imminent eviction of extraterrestrials from a pathetic shantytown (called District 9). The creatures, it turns out, have been on Earth for years, having arrived sickly and starving. Initially received by humans with compassion and care, the aliens are now mired in blighted conditions typical of long-term refugee camps unwanted by a hostile, host society. With the creatures' care contracted out to a for-profit corporation, the shantytown has become a violent slum. The aliens sift through massive piles of junk while their minders secretly research weapons technology that arrived on the visitors' spacecraft.

Against this backdrop is a more personal story about a bureaucrat named Wikus (Sharlto Copley) who is accidentally exposed to a DNA-altering substance. As he begins metamorphosing into one of the creatures, Wikus goes on the run from scientists who want to harvest his evolving, new parts and aliens who see him as a threat. When he pairs up with an extraterrestrial secretly planning an escape from Earth, however, what should be a fascinating relationship story becomes a series of firefights and explosions. Nuance is lost to numbing violence, and the more interesting potential of the film is obscured. Yet, for a while District 9 is a ...

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Director: Neill Blomkamp
Genre: Action, Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Release Date: August 14, 2009
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
DVD Release Date: December 22, 2009
Runtime: 112 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures
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