Film review – District 9 (2009)

District 9For over twenty years an alien spaceship has been hovering over the South African city Johannesburg. Its stranded alien occupants have since been living in slum conditions in a militarised camp know as District 9. Tensions between the human and alien population are running thin so the private company Multi-National United (MNU), who have a commercial interest in harnessing the alien technology for weaponry, are sent in to relocate the aliens. The mass eviction campaign is lead by Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley in his acting début), a petty bureaucrat who, like most humans, refers to the aliens derogatively as ‘prawns’. However, when Wikus becomes exposed to a black fluid he finds in one of the slum shacks he finds himself undergoing a radical genetic transformation. Now hunted by the ruthless MNU military division and the exploitive slum crime syndicates, Wikus has nowhere else to hide but within District 9.

District 9Produced by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) District 9 is the feature writing and directing début of South African visual effects artist Neill Blomkamp. The genesis of District 9 is contained within Blomkamp’s impressive 2005 short film Alive in Joburg, where he first introduced the idea of using an alien and human encounter to explore issues of discrimination. Just as films about misunderstood benevolent aliens in the 1950s (The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came from Outer Space) were calling for an end to the Cold War us-and-them mentality, District 9 is likewise making a strong statement about the damage that can be done when refugees are treated with suspicion before being given any compassion. It is a fascinating contrast to the politics of alien invasion films such as Independence Day and War of the Worlds (original and remake). District 9 is an incredibly effective parable about human rights abuses against refugees, while also functioning as a thrilling science-fiction action film.

District 9 is very fast paced and has a constant feeling of immediacy. Blomkamp uses extensive use of the faux documentary new-media style of filmmaking where mock footage from security tapes and news reports are seamlessly integrated into the action. The world of the film is further fleshed out due to the amazing visual effects used to so vividly create the aliens, their spaceship and other pieces of hardware. This is a rare case in modern cinema where the effects actually look real rather than something designed by committee on a computer during postproduction.

D9_Intl_D9_1687_smallThe final key to the why District 9 works so effectively is that it has been written intelligently. As the lead character, Wikus is an unlikely hero as he is selfish, cowardly and prejudiced. However, he is nevertheless identifiable and not beyond redemption. The alien characters are also rendered as fully fleshed out characters and Blomkamp generates an enormous amount of sympathy for them. There is nothing clean-cut or contrived in District 9 and it doesn’t even resolve traditionally. The lack of complete closure naturally leaves open the potential for a sequel but it also feels true in the sense of that the racial conflict at the heart of the film is not something that can be neatly resolved. District 9 is the most original, innovative and entertaining science-fiction film in years and contains the best mix of politics and spectacle since Starship Troopers.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Alive in Joburg (Neill Blomkamp, 2005)


  1. great review! it was certainly a more accessible film in terms of the sci-fi genre and has bolstered the credibility, much like Children of Men, however, I disagree with the seamless integration of the film styles and think the trailer misled, as the film is not really mockumentary at all. Also the sci-fi elements are only briefly touched upon, although we are surrounded by it, and the film just turns into B-grade action with B-grade acting near the end, albeit the sense of urgency was great.

  2. I’ve read similar comments elsewhere about the fact that District 9 is not strictly a mockumentary and it is a fair point. However, I liked the fact that Blomkamp choose to break some of the rules in order to adopt the documentary aesthetic without the burden of having to constantly remind the audience of the mechanics of how it all works. Redacted and Diary of the Dead are examples of two recent films that lost some of their edge because they got too obsessed with repeatedly reminding the audience they there were supposedly constructed with found footage.

    Also, I think District 9 is classic science-fiction in the sense that it takes a futuristic scenario (or in this case an alternative present scenario) to make contemporary political and cultural commentary. It may not contain any elements of “hard science-fiction” but it is no less a science-fiction films than the classic films I mentioned in my review. I really think that film history is going to treat District 9 well. But I’ve been wrong about these things before!

  3. Well the film was wide release, so it makes sense there wasn’t an entirety of focus on the specifics, but I still think it would have worked better if it was more like the trailers professed intentions; doco style, with vignettes of alien/human scenes that emphasized and helped explain, not found footage either, like for example, after talking about Wikus in the past tense, it could focus on him for a bit then move on, but it stuck with him, and the film changed gears, I just thought it would have been better to focus on other things, as opposed to dumbing the plot down to one man and his battle against the evil government/corporation, and still stay in the doco style, it could have worked, no?

  4. Trailers often misrepresent the films that they are advertising. You can’t blame a film or its filmmaker for the way the marketing team from the distribution company chose to promote the film.

    Also, while I think you’re suggestions would definitely have worked, and maybe even resulted in a better film, we can’t judge a film for what it isn’t but for what it is. You may have preferred it to have been something else and you may have been given the wrong impression by the trailers but that is all beside the point.

    District 9 is intended to be a mainstream genre film that nevertheless contains political commentary, which is not exactly subtle I know. It is still inventive and original but ultimately its aim was to make its point while keeping the audience entertained with lots of explosions and special effects. I don’t think it was dumbed down at all. I just think that Blomkamp is aware of what a mainstream audience want from a film. Nevertheless, he still managed to imbed some really interesting ideas beneath the surface. And that’s why I liked it (but also because explosions are cool).

  5. I really liked it too, It’s just a sticking point with me, that the storyline; Wikus and his ordeal is the focal point of the film, and all the buzz, the trailers(which has doco-like scenes that were NOT in the film) and the synopsis, initially did not mention any of it. Of course it is a moot point to talk about what could have been, you are right, but this is how the film was represented, I am not reviewing the film, on their own merits, you have done that well. I am being critical about the fact it is a mainstream genre film as you stated and not a mockumentary.

  6. The film was a great disappointment.
    I expected a lot but it only turned out to be an irritating camera-shaking videogame. The plot-line was ridiculous and had great holes.
    The biggest crap in 2009!!!

    It’s time writers should read more traditional literature to create strong storylines. Not silly, mindless violent cinematic video-games.

  7. Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy the film but the “biggest crap in 2009” is a little harsh. Trust me, there are far worse films doing the rounds this year.

    I really hate the video game look in films too but I don’t think that District 9 is one of the main offenders. At least it looked real and not like a series of obvious CGIs (think Transformers 2). And it wasn’t a mindless film at all. In fact, as films with a strong emphasis on action go, it was extremely thoughtful.

  8. Definitely harsh, it ran rings, and painted a masterpiece over Transformers Revenge of the Fallen, the worst film possibly ever.

  9. Concur that it’s a thoughtful and provocative film. Not only does it brave adding unconventional dimensions to the genre but they actually work together harmoniously. Also hard not to respect a genre film where people are evenly lit rather than typecast as good and evil. Despite the protagonist being so dislikable, he struck a number of sympathetic chords, in Gollumesque fashion. I think it’s a winner.

    Oh, and the prawns are gorgeous.

  10. Thanks for dropping by Romy and nicely put. The aliens are gorgeous I agree but I really think we should refer to them as non-terrestrials or species-with-an-origin-other-than-Earth.

  11. Loved the movie, although I don’t think it deserves the hub-bub going on about it. I think the political aspect is a little straightforward for my liking.

    I agree with others that the trailers did have some deceptive visuals regarding whether this film had a documentary style. Kinda reminds me of The Battle of Algiers.

  12. Hi Aaron and thanks for dropping by. You are right, the political aspect is very straightforward and probably more so than what I usually go for but I think it’s fine for this type of film.

    Interesting remark about The Battle of Algiers. I suppose it can be read as a predecessor to films like Distrct 9 for its mix of politics with a realist documentary aesthetic.

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