A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

District 9

October 23, 2010

District 9

This movie is dark. It’s a sci-fi film with a look and feel to it that is unique in my experience. It has a huge Hollywood level budget and tons of amazing special effects but it is as far from Hollywood as you can get. It’s bleak and upsetting and fascinating on a number of different levels. It depicts a world that is altogether alien to me and yet which is utterly real except for the presence of aliens in it. It’s a movie that generates conversation. I first saw it in the theater with my father and we left the dark confines of the auditorium with our minds racing. Tonight after watching it, and before we could even start our reviews, my wife and I had a lengthy discussion about how difficult it is to review something so clearly based in very personal experiences so far removed from our own, about privilege and perception, and about allegory and metaphor. These are not the kind of discussions we tend to have on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

If I had to sum up this movie in a word I would say that it is an examination of inhumanity. People’s inhumanity towards other people as well as the issue of how difficult interaction between humans and an alien intelligence would be. I’ll start with the latter because that was what first captured my imagination when I saw the movie in the theaters. I have seen the complaint leveled at this movie that it doesn’t give many answers about the aliens. There are a whole bunch of mysteries set up at the start of the film that are never solved. Big questions like “why, exactly, did the alien ship come to rest above Johannesburg?” “What were the aliens doing here?” “What went wrong for them, and why are they so unable to do anything?” In the movie a single man and alien, with some alien weapons which have been around in the world of the movie for twenty years, are able to defeat hundreds of human soldiers. So why, in those twenty years, have the aliens allowed themselves to be pushed around and degraded so much?

There are no real answers to any of these questions in the movie, but there is one implied: they’re alien. The “Prawns” don’t do anything that makes sense to us because their evolution, culture, technology and society don’t have anything in common with our own or even with anything in our world. On the one hand it’s a bit of a cop-out and writer’s crutch. The writers can have the aliens do absolutely anything nonsensical and say “well, sure, we just don’t understand their motivations.” On the other hand – this is exactly the kind of disorientation I would expect in the event of actual first contact with an extra-terrestrial species. Until we understood something about who the aliens were or where they came from I would expect that their decisions would appear non-sensical to us.

I was also really tickled by the notion of the aliens in this movie. It very deliberately and consciously turns most of the conventions of alien invasions on their heads. The massive alien ship in the movie appears over Johannesburg in South Africa and not over Washington or New York. It is a massive derelict full of impoverished workers who seem to have only the most base impulses and urges. They are animals with weapons and language incapable of living peacefully in a human way. (My one gripe would be that they are too human in appearance – bipedal with two arms and two eyes – they even use audible language within our range of hearing for communication. It’s less than realistic, but I suppose necessary when you’re trying to depict aliens in a movie.) Once transported to a “temporary” refugee camp in District 9 they simply stagnate there. They are vilified and reviled by the local populace. As this movie begins they are so disliked by the humans they come into contact with that the government of South Africa has hired a huge mercenary independent contractor called MNU to re-locate the entire alien population into a new internment camp thousands of miles away.

So, yes, the aliens in the movie are easy for the humans in the movie to hate. They are seen as beast and as sub-human. But the movie also paints most of the humans in very broad and less-than-flattering terms. There are the Haitian gangsters who feed parasitically off the Prawns. They are depicted as superstitious and primitive in their own way with their witchcraft and their belief that by eating the aliens they can gain some part of their power. And there are MNU – who are a sort of caricature of a multi-national heartless corporation who care only about profit and covering their own asses. There are really only two human characters in this whole movie and one of them is an alien while the other starts out as a petty, pompous, self-obsessed jerk.

I’m not going to even bother reviewing the plot of the movie I think. The plot’s not what captures me here, it’s the entire world. Very briefly the movie concerns the mis-adventures of Wicus Van der Merwe, the man who is promoted by his father-in law to command the MSU re-location efforts. His story arc is almost ludicrously broad. In the beginning he is so callous that he laughs and jokes as alien babies are roasted on his command. By the end he is fully involved in the plight of the aliens and the plans of one in particular to escape from Earth. Not that I am unimpressed by Sharlto Copley’s performance. Almost the entire movie rests on his depiction of Wicus and he does an admirable job. You really do feel his horror and revulsion and desperation as he descends into the alien world, and you are relieved and elated when he eventually attempts to be a hero.

The film is also odd in its refusal to conform to any genre expectations. It starts out as a documentary style expose then becomes a horror film, then morphs into an action buddy flick. The fact that it flows through all these stages so organically and fluidly is impressive, but I’m just saying that the plot is kind of broad and only really works if you don’t spend too much time thinking about it.

I do love the spectacle of the movie. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp has done an astonishing job integrating the special effects into the world of the film. The aliens are entirely digital creations but I never once failed to believe that they were simply part of the world the movie is taking place in. There are some flashy big action scenes, particularly towards the end, but even they had a kind of hyper-real feeling to them. Part of it is the constant shaky hand-held camera technique (which I understand gave some viewers nausea although it never affected me in that way.) Part of it is the level of detail in the computer models and the way they are lit and inserted into the movie – they just seem to be part of the world. And no matter how often they used it in the movie I never tired of seeing people blown into liquid giblets and sprayed over the landscape. It was a bit like the first time I got a hold of a rocket launcher in Doom. It never stops being fun.

Then there’s the setting of the film. Neill chose to put the entire conflict in his native home of Johannesburg, which adds a whole other dimension to the film. I had to realize as I watch this that the destitute slums that the aliens have been exiled to actually exist in the real world. The plight of the aliens, demonised and dehumanised, is an entirely real depiction (or so I understand) of refugee people in South Africa. Listening to Neill’s commentary track is a fascinating experience in itself. He talks about the divide between the teeming poor and the privileged rich who live in heavily defended enclaves in the city. He talks about how he feared for his health filming in the slums which were built on unsanitary landfill – and where real people live in the real world. He talks about the “smilies” that Wicus is so disgusted by – sheep’s heads split in half and sold at roadside vendors – which are a real thing that people sell on the street. He talks about how one of his set dressers could go out and find him the corpse of a dead cow on a moments notice because that kind of thing was just lying around the slums. This completely alien world is terrifying and fascinating – all the more so because it is not fiction.

Amanda was thoroughly depressed by this movie, and I can clearly see why. It depicts the absolute worst depths that humanity can sink to. It is full of despicable and deplorable acts. But it’s a big-budget sci-fi action movie that forces you to think, and that’s the kind of thing that I love. It’s not uplifting or happy. It’s a dark, bleak story in a dark, bleak world which just happens to be our world. But damned if it doesn’t start my brain going every time I see it. I appreciate it for that.

October 23, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,


  1. Uhh, District 9 has a minuscule “hollywood” budget — only 30 million! No really, that’s quite low for a sci-fi epic film. For example, the recent Hollywood film The Book of Eli was 80 million….

    Regardless, nice review — sorry for the picky point but one of its appeals was the relatively low budget.

    Comment by Joachim Boaz | October 25, 2010 | Reply

    • Hmm. Perhaps I should have said “expensive looking” special effects. I suppose that since Peter Jackson had built the infrastructure already with Weta the momentum was on their side. They didn’t really need to develop new technologies, just refine techniques used to create Gollum for LotR. Thanks for reading though!

      Comment by tanatoes | October 26, 2010 | Reply

  2. The latest Predators had a 40 million dollar budget, but obviously more famous actors who demand a higher salary… so perhaps in perspective (with inexpensive actors) 30 million is quite a lot for special effects — obviously not Avatar quantities of money though…

    Comment by Joachim Boaz | October 25, 2010 | Reply

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