Wednesday, August 19, 2009

District 9: 1.8 million 'prawns' in a slum

District 9 (2009, South Africa/New Zealand, Neill Blomkamp): 10/10

District 9 is a rare thing -- an intelligent sci-fi alien film with plenty of political and social observations packaged as a fun summer movie.

Sci-fi aware

The film starts off with a voice-over explaining that an alien spaceship didn’t stop over New York City, but surprisingly came to a halt over Johannesburg. This is clearly a reference towards films like Independence Day or other Hollywood films which believe that aliens would somehow only stop over America.

The basis of some sci-fi movies in the past was that aliens were kept in Area 51 and government/military personnel used alien technology to develop weapons. District 9 also picks up on this idea and expands it to depict private military contractors wanting to harness the power of advanced alien weapons. Given the rise of private military contractors around the world, the film is properly updated.

Segregation, Refugees and border issues

The setting of the film in South Africa and the director’s interview has focused most of the attention on apartheid but District 9 achieves a lot more than that as it highlights the problem that refugees face in temporary camps when they cross a border. In the film, the alien population is forced to live in slums with substandard conditions, the same treatment that refugees who cross boundaries in Africa or Asia face. On top of that, the social hierarchy shown in the camps is modeled on real life people who take advantage of refugees living in camps.

Another interesting point is depicted by the character of the alien child born and raised in District 9. The alien child asks his father what their planet is like and wants to go home even though he has never seen his home planet. Scores of refugee children are born in camps far away from their home nations and hardly get a chance to ever return to their homeland. As a result, an entire generation (or two) of people have no concept of understanding their roots and have to depend on stories or the rare picture of their homeland (a hologram stands in for a photo in District 9).

The genesis of hatred and genocide

One key ingredient for genocide is when one group of people dehumanizes another group and considers the other group unworthy of living. In District 9 that concept is shown at face value as the tall, skinny and underfed aliens are the object of hatred of their neighbours. The sentiments of the people who live around District 9 indicates that if the South African government does not act to move the aliens, then something far more dangerous would likely take place.

Cruel humans

In a twist on the regular Hollywood alien film template, District 9 shows that if aliens did land on earth, then it would be humans who would do more harm to the aliens than the other way around. Given the messed up carnage that has taken place over the last few decades, it is entirely believable that humans would be far more evil when dealing with aliens. Once again, the film is appropriately updated.


There are some action sequences in the film but they are nicely integrated in the story and do not cause the film to halt for mindless 20 minutes of explosive situations. The finale action scene takes place in the same slums that the rest of the film is shot in thereby making the action scene an inevitable consequence of the forces brewing in the camps. Plus, the action scenes do not include any silly cuts to generate humour (like Spider Man 3 or even Dark Knight) but are completely focused on the task at hand.


District 9 brilliantly proves that it is possible to make an intelligent action/sci-fi film without loud explosions or a brain dead script. If strong word of mouth enables the film to make more money, a sequel would follow. And the sequel will surely be called District 10.

No comments: