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District 9 (Review)

District 9 (Review)

A political statement disguised as sci-fi action.
Aug 11, 2009
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District 9
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller Release Date: 13/08/2009 Runtime: 112 minutes Country: USA, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa


Director:  Neill Blomkamp Writer(s): 
Neill Blomkamp

Terri Tatchell

Cast: Elizabeth Mkandawie, Jason Cope, John Sumner, Nathalie Boltt, Sharlto Copley, Sylvaine Strike
District 9 (Review), reviewed by Anders Wotzke on 2009-08-11T21:25:33+00:00 rating 4.0 out of5

Ask someone under the age of 20 what the word apartheid means, and there’s a good chance they’ll just look at you like you’ve got some kind of speech impediment. Ask them again once they’ve see District 9, telling them to replace the Aliens in the film with the black population of South Africa, and maybe then they’ll start to get the picture. That’s because Neill Blomkamp’s ambitious feature debut is an engaging, action-packed history lesson in South African politics.

Aside from the glaring allegory, the simple fact that the aliens in District 9 do not think to stop over Washington D.C or New York, rather Johannesburg in South Africa, is enough to set Blomkamp’s debut apart from all the other Hollywood films regarding first contact (i.e Independence Day). As does the brisk documentary-styled opening act, where talking heads, archive news video and handy cam footage is used to explain how the aliens, malnourished and unable to leave, were evacuated from their mother ship and sent to District 9; an alien concentration camp in the slums of Johannesburg.  Fast forward to present day and public support for the integration of the aliens into the general population is at an all time low. As such, the agency tasked with controlling their containment, Multi-National United (MNU), set in motion their plans to relocate the alien population to a more secluded refugee camp outside of town.  The agent tasked with overseeing the operation is a cheery MNU employee named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley).

2009 district 9 0011 313x217 custom District 9 (Review)

But even Wikus, a seemingly compassionate husband, talks down to the aliens (nicknamed ‘Prawns’) like they’re trash, giddily guiding the camera through their derelict shanty town when serving them their eviction notices. It’s here where Blomkamp, a South African himself, most notably alludes to the apartheid, as the aliens  can be seen sleeping on beds of newspaper  inside shacks made of sheets of tin and cardboard. It’s a novel twist to what we’ve seen countless times before in sci-fi films, as for once, the aliens are made out to be the victims. In fact, we care more for these ‘Prawns than we ever do for humanity, especially since nearly all the humans come across as bigoted bastards. Wikus is hardly an exception, only showing sympathy once he is sprayed with an alien substance that causes his DNA to gradually mutate, forcing him into exile.

Yet it’s during this second act that District 9 loses part of its edge and threatens to become your run-of-the-mill sci-fi action film. For one, the engaging documentary structure of the film is mostly cast aside; the interviews suddenly cease to narrate the story, and the once integrated cameraman becomes just another imaginary observer.  I do acknowledge that, considering Wikus  is exiled, it would have made little sense for there to be a cameraman following him around. It’s just a shame Blomkamp’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with and Terri Tatchell, couldn’t find away to better retain the documentary framework throughout, especially given how remarkably authentic it made the first half of the film feel in comparison to what follows.

There’s also the issue concerning Blomkamp’s great haste in getting to the action, as it sees the film blow over some much needed character development. As a result, we’re given little reason to care about the outcome of Wikus’ relationship with his wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood), despite it being a common cause for his heartache during the film, given she is on screen for all of two minutes. To his credit, newcomer Sharlto Copley still manages to engage as Wikus  even without much in the way of a back story, as he injects just the right amount of humour and humanity into his performance.  He also avoids completely hamming up Wikus’ abrupt transition from everyday chump to supreme action hero, which the screenplay almost demands him to do during the typical Hollywood climax.

But that’s just me nitpicking. Despite its flaws, District 9 is still a damn good film, and don’t think I’m telling you otherwise.

Even with a meager budget (by Hollywood standards) of $30 million, District 9 is technically sublime. The action is persistently thrilling, thanks to the sheer energy of Trent Opaloch’s gritty and versatile hand-held cinematography. Then there’s David Whitehead’s stellar sound design, which makes such convincing use of Dolby Surround, a man seated in front of me looked angrily around the cinema to see who was talking up the back, only later to realise it was off-screen chatter.  Perhaps more remarkable are the visual effects, which look as though they belong to a 100 million dollar production and not one costing a third of that. These aliens are not mere actors in latex suits, but rather tremendously well animated CGI creations, each dripping with character. As an avid fan of splatter films, Peter Jackson’s (director of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy) influence as the film’s producer is particularly evident in the film’s gory action finale, featuring a weapon that causes instant combustion on impact. It’s truly nasty stuff, but like the film as a whole, you can’t possibly say it doesn’t look cool.


It’s not about to redefine the genre, but District 9 is easily the most exhilarating lesson in racial politics you’re ever likely to sit through.

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