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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

District 9 (review)

District 9 green light

Aliens Go Home

Alien spaceship hovering over a major city. Military action in a garbage-strewn, graffiti-covered ghetto. Icky bodily transformation. Kick-ass suits of robot armor. It’s not that there isn’t a clear weight of genre history behind Neill Blomkamp’s astonishing feature debut: District 9 nods to everything from Cronenberg’s The Fly to Verhoeven’s Robocop, from Raimi’s Evil Dead II to Scott’s Black Hawk Down. It’s that even as half my brain was ticking off all those little nods with a geek’s appreciation for fellow geekitude, it’s that the other half of my brain was so floored with surprise that this could all still feel so fresh, so original, so like nothing I’d ever seen before. It’s like those optical illusions where your eyes switch back and forth from seeing the women in profile to the fancy vase: District 9 is simultaneously brilliantly innovative and profoundly indebted to the cinema that inspired it.

I know what you’re saying: Black Hawk Down ain’t really a genre film. It’s true. But on a gut level, the lack of artifice and tremendous plausibility of D9 owes much to that military action flick: this is, in many ways, as grounded as that in-your-face, based-on-real-events story. (And it’s as little like the 1988 flick Alien Nation as it could possibly be, even if at the shallowest surface, D9 appears to be aping it.) Watching D9 is not so much like watching a movie as it is like watching the news: Blomkamp — who cowrote the script with Terri Tatchell, based on his short film “Alive in Jo’burg” — opens with “documentary” footage of bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who’s very excited about his new job. He shall be heading up the massive task of relocating those one-million-plus alien refugees out of the ghetto outside Johannesburg they’ve been living in for the past 20 years — that would be District 9, of course — and into, well, a new ghetto further from the city. Intercut with that are “news reports” of violence erupting in the city and person-on-the-street interviews in which ordinary (human) citizens insist that the aliens have to leave, they’re not wanted, and why is the government wasting so much money on taking care of them, anyway?

I can’t say that the aliens — tall, insectile, chitinous creatures derogatorily called “prawns,” for their minor resemblance to shrimp — are exactly an afterthought in Blomkamp’s vision, but the way he treats them is so matter-of-fact that they become entirely as a taken-for-granted aspect of this alternate world. (The year here is 2010 or so, and the aliens arrived 20 years prior, or around 1990. Which we know didn’t happen… at least not as spectacularly and publicly as this.) There’s none of the fantastical imagery or whimsy that we typically get from even the grittiest of SF movies: the camera does not linger over the stuff it thinks is cool hoping to get you to drop your jaw. You will anyway, but it won’t have been forced.

It’s the details causally thrown in for authenticty that layer this world up into rock-solid realism: even the blatantly satirical ones feel real. The company Van De Merwe works for, MNU, has been handing alien affairs for years — it’s also the planet’s second biggest weapons manufacturer and would love to figure out how to make the aliens’ guns work. (You need prawn DNA to do that, and the aliens themselves don’t seem too interested in shooting anything up: the survivors are all drones, and figuratively and literally directionless without their dead leadership; they’re just about able to take care of themselves on a subsistence level, and certainly pose no threat of, saying, taking over Planet Earth.) Van De Merwe himself is a master of bureaucratic whitewashery and paperworking over legal niceties; imagine if Hitler worked at Dunder Mifflin.

And yet Van De Merwe is not a caricature — newcomer Copley’s performance is breathtakingly good — and when his task in District 9 takes a bad turn, he blossoms into something that probably even he himself never expected he was capable of. At the same point, Blomkamp ratchets up the intimacy: in one startling moment, he drops from his mockumentary style into an omniscient narrative mode. It’s as if we are drawn fully into the visceral reality of this world just as Van De Merwe learns it’s so much more than he ever anticipated, too.

And we’re hooked. I had the distinct sense that I’d never seen a science fiction movie before this one, it’s so perfectly executed. How could it not be? Its recent history may be slightly different, but this is our world, beset by the same dark impulses of greed, bigotry, and delusion.


Watch District 9 online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.


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District 9 (2009)
US/Can release: Aug 14 2009
UK/Ire release: Sep 4 2009

MPAA: rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language
BBFC: rated 15

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Mathias

    Good to hear. Can’t wait to see it this weekend.

  • Poor man’s Alien Nation; ID4 did it better.

    :)

    SO PSYCHED.

  • Totally ready and breathless for it.

  • Bree

    !!!SPOILERS ALERT!!!

    One minor quibble about this review, which bothers me for some bizarre reason:

    MaryAnn, please call him Wikus, you sound like MNU! Not only is typing Van de Merwe too much hard work, it’s also too formal/impersonal. In the film his surname ‘Van de Merwe’ is used infrequently and only in an official capacity by those who didn’t know him, it’s almost derogatory. To us, the viewing audience who goes along for the ride and bears witness to both his physical and psychological transformation, HE IS WIKUS.

    That said, in addition to the many cinematic influences mentioned in this review, watching D-9 also brought to mind the 80’s movie ENEMY MINE in terms of the relationship between Wikus, Christopher and child.

  • Chuck

    Haha, Google ad had this link on the page:

    http://www.rael.org/download.php?view.1

  • GI Joe > District 9

    True story.

  • Drave

    Just got back. This movie is a freaking MASTERPIECE! I cannot wait to see what Neill Blomkamp gives us next!

  • Thanks all for not mentioning Peter Jackson once. For some bizarre reason I keep finding peeps on forums crediting PJ for the film, even though creatively it is not his. I do hope Neill Blomkamp gets more high profile work, and soon too.

  • It’s a decent movie, but with a few glaring plot holes, maybe it’s just me…

    SPOILER ALERT:

    The early part of the movie, when Wikus gets exposed to the fluid, you’d think that the MNU or gov’t officials would have some kind of quarantine system in place, in case alien bio-matter intermingles with human… and indeed later on you hear about there being other cases of mutation – possibly induced by the illegal experiments – so they knew this kind of thing could happen… it seemed to me very reckless to have Wikus stumble about, puking his guts, bleeding from his nose, and not have his co-workers immediately call the medvac people in. I see a co-worker bleeding from his nose after visiting an alien slum, I’m calling the ER and getting 5 blocks away from him.

    What did make this movie work was the sense of ‘being there,’ of watching these characters go through what they think are grand plans for themselves (Wikus proud of getting promoted; Christopher thinking he’s finally going to fix the mothership and escape) only for random chance, selfishness, and the raw immediacy of simple survival kick in and having them struggle from moment to moment against hostile forces (MNU, the human slumlords, there is no difference between those two groups exploiting the aliens). There aren’t any heroes in this movie, only survivors.

    Of course, we’ll find out in three years what the ending will be…

  • amanohyo

    Fresh back from my biannual double feature, and I have to say that this movie met my expectations while Ponyo fell far short, which was actually the opposite of what I was anticipating. So many things were done well, but I think what I liked the most is that Wikus was selfish and not too bright, a truly distinct everyman, instead of the bland Chatum Tanning/Crom Tooze clone that Hollywood usually shoehorns into action/sci-fi movies.

    As practically everyone has already said, the choice of setting instantly added quite a lot of depth to the movie. The parallels weren’t shoved into your face, but it was impossible not to compare the humans’ treatment of the prawn to the treatment of black Africans in South Africa (and blacks in America, of course). The movie also did a great job of associating the idea (and literal act) of consumption with nausea, oppression, and death.

    However, I do have three nitpicks that have nothing to do with PaulW’s plot holes. As usual, the only women who aren’t prostitutes or witches are around for moral support. Boo-urns. The movie also tries a little too hard to make you dislike the military dude and the MNU execs by giving them a couple lines that belong on the lips of villains in the cheesier action movies of yesteryear.

    Finally, I disagree with MA when she says the camera doesn’t linger over stuff the filmmakers think is cool. It’s true that the the aliens are shot in a commendably nonchalant way, and the camera never slows down to do a few drunken 360’s as it does in crapfests like Transformers, GI Joe, and 300, but you definitely get a sense that the filmmakers are geeking out at the end. I can almost hear their Beavisandbuttheadian giggles, “Huhuh exploding bodies are awesome…heheheh, let’s do it again, and again… again!”

    But that’s all I got. It’s a great movie, and it paints our species as we really are. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Minority Report and Children of Men, and while I doubt it will usher in a new age of sci-fi movies (the audience reaction at my showing was fairly tepid), at the very least it’s a minor milestone for the genre.

  • Shadowen

    This movie impressed me deeply, as well as my cousins, who had been expecting to walk out saying “that was interesting”, as opposed to “that was a really good film“.

    I would argue the plot hole PaulW centers on did feel a little weird, but as MaryAnn mentioned, Wikus is a skilled bureaucrat who had just been named team leader; they may have had their doubts, but his subordinates weren’t willing to say anything, since he kept insisting that he as fine. MNU struck me as a very top-down organization.

    And, man…I never thought a subtitled line would be so moving.

    “Three years…I promise.”

  • MaryAnn

    The parallels weren’t shoved into your face, but it was impossible not to compare the humans’ treatment of the prawn to the treatment of black Africans in South Africa (and blacks in America, of course).

    There’s another aspect to it, too, that North American audiences won’t necessarily pick up on: it reflects how black South Africans are treating black refugees from other African countries who have poured into South Africa in recent years. Some of the news footage of riots and fires and stuff in the film come from real events of violent revolt against those newcomers in Johannesburg while they were shooting the film there.

    That’s us: We always have to have an Other to hate on.

  • amanohyo

    Hot damn, it’s going to make its budget back and then some on the first weekend. So, this is what patriotism feels like. *sniff* And I’m proud to be an Americaaaan… (consumer).

    It’s cool that you got to interview Blomkamp, MA; he and Terri Tatchell should get a lot more work after the success of this film. Word of mouth among the geek/gamer community is spreading quickly since the final few minutes of the movie are an FPS (and TPS) fan’s wet dream. Makes me almost wish he was allowed to go ahead and make that Halo movie… almost.

  • Jolly

    I find myself comparing this movie to James Cameron’s “Aliens,” given they cover many of the same themes. The corporation that is seeking to commercially exploit the aliens. The corporate man, willing to sacrifice lives in the pursuit of his goals. And the protagonist that overcomes his/her prejudices towards the “other” in the quest for survival. I liked the way that “District 9” established it’s alternative universe. However, I was a little disappointed that it rapidly degenerated into a by-the-numbers action flick. I would definitely recommend it though, if only to see the alternative world that the creators have envisioned. I just wish more time had been spent exploring the social dimensions of that world, rather than sharing the arsenal from “Half Life 2,” right down to the gravity gun.

  • Some of the news footage of riots and fires and stuff in the film come from real events of violent revolt against those newcomers in Johannesburg while they were shooting the film there.

    Some of the reviews I have looked at were also saying they thought the debris and grime in these townships were hammed up for effect, but I have been in these places a number of times. The film shows them exactly as they are. (Well, from what I have seen of the film… stupid South African film monopoly is only releasing it here in two weeks)

  • As a South African I am relieved that we finally have a movie to be proud of, unlike the heavy handedness we had to endure with past “struggle” movies (Sarafina, Cry The Beloved Country, Country Of My Skull)

    Don’t get me wrong, all those movies were fine, but I always wished we could make the kind of movies I enjoyed watching that are enjoyed as entertainment first and if the filmmakers are smart enough, weave in the commentary without overwhelming us with it.

    But what I am most proud of is the success it has attained in the US this weekend despite it being so very South African and didn’t have any stars AT ALL. (with Sarafina they had to get Whoopi Goldberg to star in it to appease the accountants)

    It really proves that an international audience will support a great concept that is well executed despite it having unknowns in it. (okay, Peter Jackson was needed as an assurance for movie goers)

    Forgive me MaryAnn but I decided not to read your review yet as I first want to see the movie, which leads me to another gripe: why do I have to wait another 2 weeks to watch it? GI Joe was only a week later and many times we get movies on the same day as in the US, so I’m quite peeved to say the least.

    Anyway, I’ll post back after I’ve seen it, which by then it will probably be old news already. Perhaps South Africans will realise now that maybe local is lekker, nothing to be ashamed of.

  • MaryAnn

    However, I was a little disappointed that it rapidly degenerated into a by-the-numbers action flick.

    I won’t dispute that the film is primarily an action flick, but I wouldn’t call it a “by-the-numbers” one: the action feels fresh and original, too.

    why do I have to wait another 2 weeks to watch it? GI Joe was only a week later and many times we get movies on the same day as in the US, so I’m quite peeved to say the least.

    I think if the studio realized the film had the potential to be this big, it would have been released in lots more markets simultaneously — in the U.K. they have to wait till October! — because they’d have been more worried about piracy. I think this film will be pirated (if it hasn’t been already) and be viewed by quite a few fans in locales where they can’t see it legitimately yet… and I don’t think it will cut into its box office takings at all. Anyone who watches this on their computer will want to see it on a big screen.

  • Robert McCoy

    After enduring crap like Transformers 2 and GI Joe, it’s good to be reminded what great films can achieve. I have a feeling D9 will be talked about for decades.

  • Erik Goodwyn

    Boy. Apparently the critics loooove this movie. I was underwhelmed. Throw out anything bizarre and do it well, and you will be hailed as being “original”. Look at the “subtle” allegory! Look at how Wikas is an idiot who grins while flaming prawn children, then…he is turned into one! Could that be ironic??? I mean, come on, we get it already, this is an allegory of the Apartheid government. And we also get how horrible, grimy, cruel and sadistic people are towards other people, er, I mean prawns. I guess we need movies to remind us that we’re awful. Especially awful toward weird looking drone creatures that crash landed on Earth for no apparent reason other than to create a political commentary.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong, I agree the movie was done well, but it seemed overly cerebral, detached and cynical, until the last act–which became a standard action-flick. All of it was stylistically solid. But when it was all over I was left feeling like…ok so what was the point of that? Now Wikas is a prawn–yeah that’s ironic, blah, blah–but so what? Maybe I’m asking too much of it, like a resolution for better or worse, but instead the movie just sort of stopped.

  • MaryAnn

    overly cerebral, detached and cynical,

    Mind if I borrow this?

  • Erik Goodwyn (Mon Aug 17 09, 4:27PM):

    Maybe I’m asking too much of it, like a resolution for better or worse, but instead the movie just sort of stopped.

    Here: this one is probably more up your alley. The bad guys totally get caught at the end. AND the hero gets the girl (SPOILER).

  • **SPOILERS**

    There’s a point near the end, just as the final battle begins, where Wikus flakes out on Christopher and just leaves him to fucking die, and in any other movie you’d just know he was gonna come back. But they set him up so well (as a well-rounded human) in the preceding hour and a half that you just believe it. He’s a fucking coward, you say to yourself (at least I did), but it’s not like we didn’t see that coming! And then, as if to reinforce how well-written the story is, when he does turn around you saw that coming too, which is a feeling that’s hard to explain.

    The point is, Wikus is a man, not an action hero, and unlike some recent examples, he earns his badass moments because we know how fucking angry and afraid he is, and how much he just wants to get away… it turns an otherwise generic action moment into a display of singular courage.

    I loved this movie.

  • Erik Goodwyn

    I had a feeling someone would say something like that. I wasn’t asking for a “feel good” ending. I don’t mind tragedy or dark endings. And I agree that the characterization was strong. But the movie just sort of stopped. It didn’t really have much of an ending. I mean, what was his sacrifice in service of? Getting Christopher out…ok, so he escapes. Then what?

    I don’t know. Just felt like it was unfinished for me.

  • Erik Goodwyn

    MJ: of course you can borrow “overly cerebral, detached and cynical”. Wait…you’re mocking me aren’t you?

    :)

  • zids

    Complaining that D9 doesn’t have an ending is like complaining Empire Strikes Back doesn’t have an ending.

    I’m hard pressed to remember the last time a movie that is NOT a sequel/prequel/remake/reboot/comic book adaptation, directed by a first-timer, has unknown stars, occupying the top spot.

    Great movie, by the way.

    Blomkamp for Terminator 5, anyone?

  • Erik Goodwyn

    Hardly. Empire was already part of a planned trilogy, so everyone knew there was going to be another one. D9 doesn’t feel like that at all, instead it feels like the director stopped not because the story was finished, but because he ran out of things to say. He told the story of how awful humans are to other humans (I mean prawns), and journeyed through the eyes of a blithering idiot who started out steamrolling over the aliens for the Man, then had a change of heart, completing the transformation by literally turning into one of them. That story was complete and self-contained. But what about the rest of it? The director refused to speculate on whether or not there was any hope of human-prawn peace. Maybe that is a strength, but to me it just seems timid.

  • Erik Goodwyn (Tue Aug 18 09, 7:00AM):

    I had a feeling someone would say something like that. I wasn’t asking for a “feel good” ending. I don’t mind tragedy or dark endings. And I agree that the characterization was strong. But the movie just sort of stopped. It didn’t really have much of an ending. I mean, what was his sacrifice in service of? Getting Christopher out…ok, so he escapes. Then what?

    I don’t know. Just felt like it was unfinished for me.

    *SPOILERS*

    I think perhaps you’re forgetting a key element of why Wikus is helping Christopher escape. He’s been promised a cure for this transformation. That’s his entire motivation, the reason for his sacrifice, to restore his human body; to get back to his family and his life. It’s why the story is so tragic, because now he’s very likely brought doom on his entire planet. Wikus is no hero, he’s a brave, selfish, misguided protagonist who can’t really see past five minutes from now.

    I agree that the ending is ambiguous, and certainly it’s tragic, but “unfinished” is hardly appropriate.

  • Paul

    I think the movie ended quite well. The alien made it to his ship and the human completed his character arc.

    SPOILERS

    I think Wikus is completely freaked out by his transformation, plus knowledge that his father-in-law has signed off on his brutal death for profit. I can completely believe his actions, rational as well as irrational, moral as well as immoral.

    As for his helping an alien escape which will lead to aliens coming back, it might also be that Wikus is the only proof that humanity shouldn’t be wiped out. The aliens might come back as a rescue mission, they might attack, they might post a big, bright sign in orbit flashing: DO NOT LAND! BEWARE OF EARTHLINGS!

  • Erik Goodwyn

    Hmm. Well you’ve given me things to think about. Maybe my problem is that I found Wikas really annoying. I just didn’t like him, and so it was hard for me to care about what happened to him. What a doofus. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the story was ill conceived. I can see where you (newbs and paul) are coming from, and it makes sense intellectually, but I felt something missing on an emotional level–it’s hard to explain. Still, it was a very effective movie, and was successful at making me think, so I still would give it a “thumbs up”, though I think the critics are wetting themselves over it mainly because it’s “allegorical” (which is probably a pleasant change from all the mindless explosions we’ve had to deal with this summer) but I don’t really like allegory.

    I didn’t understand the point of making this a sci-fi story when it really isn’t about sci-fi, it’s about Apartheid. Sci-fi is usually about “bigger” more speculative or mysterious ideas and not human relationships as much. Wrapping this story in sci-fi garb gives it the illusion that there’s going to be some kind of deep meditation when it’s really a stark view of humanity’s cruelty to one another. It felt like a mismatch, though still a well-executed one.

  • LaSargenta

    Saw it last night so I now came here and read the comments. I always trust MaryAnn not to give a synopsis in her reviews, so I did read that when she posted it. Great film and I am so pleased that something made far out of the Hollywood machine is a blockbuster.

    For Erik, I heartily disagree with this statement:

    I didn’t understand the point of making this a sci-fi story when it really isn’t about sci-fi, it’s about Apartheid. Sci-fi is usually about “bigger” more speculative or mysterious ideas and not human relationships as much. Wrapping this story in sci-fi garb gives it the illusion that there’s going to be some kind of deep meditation when it’s really a stark view of humanity’s cruelty to one another.

    Humans write these stories, just like humans write mythology about deities. All we create is really just about us. We don’t actually know what the mysterious ideas even are. We know what we find mysterious but what what we are conscious of finding mysterious often isn’t even the thing that holds a key. We discover the key was something we didn’t even look at or wonder about yet was far more mysterious than we can imagine.

    The most thought provoking science (speculative) fiction I have ever read is ultimately about relationships: Le Guin, Butler, Delaney. All we have is our relationships to each other and within ourselves and we create the world around these relationships. When we experience real culture shock, it is because of an exchange of humanity that we realize we do not understand and that makes us realize that we haven’t understood much or everything of went before. It isn’t about being confronted with some new-to-us, funky technology.

    When I’ve lived in other cultures (and ones that aren’t that much different from the one I grew up in), I have had occasions where I’ve had sudden and severe culture shock, usually years after I’ve first entered the culture. It wasn’t the language, it wasn’t the mirror-world aspects of different kinds of signs on the doors of public toilets, it wasn’t the food. It was in relationships with others and seeing my “standard” (from my own cultural upbringing) of inter-relating as foreign and seeing the confusion. It often brought my own thoughlessness or even cruelty to my forebrain when I had never even realized before that I had been that way.

  • Erik Goodwyn (Fri Aug 21 09, 10:59AM):

    Sci-fi is usually about “bigger” more speculative or mysterious ideas and not human relationships as much.

    I disagree with this wholeheartedly. Good sci-fi has all these things, of course, but “bigger” isn’t better, and most of the “big” idea movies use “the future” as a setting for action and adventure, whereas true sci-fi films (and books) use that setting to tell human stories in new ways; human relationships (with others, with self, with the environment, etc…) are are the core of the best sci-fi movies we’ve seen. :)

    A fantastic recent example of this is Battlestar Galactica, which was first and foremost a story about people.

  • MaryAnn

    Not only is SF always about people, it’s always about the here-and-now — not the future, and not some distant planet. SF is always a metaphorically representation of what worries us now. If it isn’t… then it isn’t a satisfying story.

    It’s why the story is so tragic, because now he’s very likely brought doom on his entire planet.

    If Earth is doomed as a result of the events depicted here, it’s certainly not Wikus’ doing: it’s the doing of all of humanity, who treated the aliens the way we did.

    Maybe my problem is that I found Wikas really annoying. I just didn’t like him, and so it was hard for me to care about what happened to him.

    I don’t think we’re supposed to like Wikus, at least not overmuch. He’s not a very nice guy. And he’s not an interesting guy in the “I’d like to have a beer with him” sense. But he is interesting in a dramatic sense. He’s nothing like the typical protagonist of this kind of movie, and if there’s anything “heroic” in what he does, it’s hard-won change on his part that allows it.

    I didn’t find him unsympathetic, however: he certainly doesn’t deserve any of the terrible stuff that happens to him (except maybe getting hit in the head with the lollipop thrown by Christopher Johnson Jr).

  • Ystalwyn

    If Earth is doomed as a result of the events depicted here, it’s certainly not Wikus’ doing: it’s the doing of all of humanity, who treated the aliens the way we did.

    That was my problem with the movie. I’m not jaded enough to accept the premise. The movie didn’t do enough to help me understand why it was the way it was. The whole point seemed to be that humanity is crap with zero redeeming qualities. There were zero human characters I cared about. When Wikus was changing, I didn’t care. I already hated the guy from the moment we saw him step into the district.

    Christopher I cared about. His son I cared about. But the movie didn’t. The movie abandoned them and made us follow Wikus around: “Oh, look!” says the movie. “The piece of human trash is suffering! Don’t you feel bad for him?”

    No, movie, I didn’t.

  • Cam

    District 9 isnt’ just an allegory though, it uses the allegory to explore something else: what if everything that everyone has ever used to justify oppression of the other actually was true? The Prawn are literally a servant race, they’re violent, kind of gross and unmotivated. There are plenty of good reasons that we shouldn’t get along with them. The movie then asks if how we treat them is justified, and it expects you to behave reasonably and respond ‘no.’

    Also, the ending was one hundred percent thematically contained. Look, there’s a sacrifice followed by a guy named Chris ascending into the sky on a lower case ‘t,’ hoping one day to return to save his people. I’m not a religious man, but I’m just sayin’. I’m sure it’s nothing.

  • Cam

    and to actually engage with the above conversation, it’s expects us to respond the same way towards Wikus. He deserves our sympathy because nobody should suffer like he does, even if he had chosen poorly at the end. There is a biblical thing going on here as well, and if you buy that then Wikus, wretched as he is, doesn’t deserve to suffer.

  • ystalwyn@hotmail.com

    “Ahhaha! Oh, I’m killing their young! Oh, listen to them pop like popcorn! Ahahhahaha! Isn’t that funny?”

    You know what? Frankly if he has a couple of bad days, I don’t really mind.

    By the way (and this has nothing to do with my opinion on the film, I’m just curious from an in-movie logistical standpoint), how long after they went in were the aliens supposed to be evicted? I’d thought it was 24 hours and was curious why it hadn’t happened 72 hours later.

  • Saladinho

    @ystalwyn@hotmail.com: Because they turned their attention to finding Wikus.

  • Grinebiter

    Point of information: there is a very favourable review of D9 in this week’s edition of “The Economist”, which doesn’t normally notice SF films.

  • Robert P

    I saw some elements of “Enemy Mine” in it as well.

    Interesting film in some respects. On a technical note, it seemed odd to me that it was shot in what appeared to be 16:9 instead of theatrical widescreen.

    I suppose I should give a spoilers notice if I’m going to talk about plot elements?

    Plot holes have been mentioned. Something I’m a bit fuzzy on is why did Christopher have to work on the spaceship fuel/mutation juice in secret for 20 years? I thought it was established that the human population at large would have been happy to send them on their way.

  • cb

    The movie didn’t do enough to help me understand why it was the way it was. The whole point seemed to be that humanity is crap with zero redeeming qualities. There were zero human characters I cared about. When Wikus was changing, I didn’t care. I already hated the guy from the moment we saw him step into the district.

    Does it make you feel any better, vis-a-vis the redeeming qualities of humanity, to know that the “on-the-street” interviews in the beginning were actual candid interviews in Johannesburg with people being asked about the real-life immigrant/refugee situation in South Africa? That was real-life xenophobia. Does the movie have to explain why that is? Hatred of “them” is just the way it is, whenever it’s socially acceptable to do so*.

    That’s what struck me as interesting about Wikus in the beginning. He has what for lack of a better word a “casual” bigotry. He obviously doesn’t like the “prawns” and treats them like inferiors, which was how everyone treated them. Like a middle manager he’s also very much about orders and procedure, so combine the two and he’s more than willing to get tough on them, up to and including aborting their illegal children. Yikes. Yet for an uncaring hateful order-follower he’s awful concerned with making sure no unnecessary harm comes to the prawns. He seems honestly disturbed when the one who hit him was shot, when it’s obviously within the rules to shoot any prawn that so much as looks at you funny. He’d rather just manipulate them into complying.

    So there’s your redeemable quality — by relating to the prawns as “people” or whatever at some level, it shows that while he may be racist it isn’t based in hate, just apathy and annoyance. At some level, he’s basically a decent person. Hey, what’s the point of being worthy of redemption if you aren’t in need of it?

    how long after they went in were the aliens supposed to be evicted? I’d thought it was 24 hours and was curious why it hadn’t happened 72 hours later.

    Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m sure it would take much more than 24 hours to serve much less actually move over 1.5 million aliens, but I would have thought they’d at least have gotten as far as Christopher’s house and the others they served on the first day.

    Plot holes have been mentioned. Something I’m a bit fuzzy on is why did Christopher have to work on the spaceship fuel/mutation juice in secret for 20 years? I thought it was established that the human population at large would have been happy to send them on their way.

    Well, Christopher probably didn’t realize that, and just didn’t trust the humans to just let them take their spaceship and go home. His paranoia was probably justified, since if MNU had found out they’d have tried to find a way to control it.

    Maybe though he could have just asked for help in the beginning and the movie could have ended twenty years before it started. Frankly one thing I found believable was the portrayal of Christopher as a smarter than the average prawn, but really of a ‘normal’ not genius level of intelligence. He knew his way around their technology, but his escape plan wasn’t exactly sophisticated.

    But hey maybe if Wikus had been a little smarter and a little more careful during a “Hey I’ve never seen this before!” moment, Christopher’s plan would have gone off without a hitch. :)

    * Which, btw, is where the point of sci-fi comes in. By making “them” aliens from another planet, it’s easier to understand why “they” are considered alien. And thus you explore an aspect of ourselves in an abstracted way.

  • D-9 definitely has a lot going for it — character development, great acting a at least a few people, awesome alien weapons; it felt a bit preachy at times at different times though

  • Albert Hahn

    Wow, amazing number of comments. Sorry, MaryAnn,
    but “breathtakingly good” for Copley doesn’t seem to do justice to a performance that totally made the movie. The sci-fi is so full of holes and derivative
    that it needed the perfect comic touch from
    the lead actor to turn it into a must see.
    A few minutes into this I thought whoever this guy
    is he’d have my vote for best actor at this early date. A few minutes later my friend said “wow, what a performance!” He still has my vote
    after the movie although the satire/comedy was neglected towards the end of the movie.
    Not his fault.

  • Tom Fowler

    Having watched the film for a second time, I found it interesting to note:

    The year here is 2010 or so, and the aliens arrived 20 years prior, or around 1990.

    The very earliest “recorded” footage of boarding the mothership has a time stamp of 1982. So really, the events depicted in District 9, would only have occurred in 2002. Exactly 2 decades; if it was longer, the movie would have said something like 25 years (2007).

    This and the way some of the characters talk at the beginning and ends of the movie, leads me to believe that the 3 year time-frame Chris planned to return within, has since passed.

  • Hank Graham

    Maryann (and everyone else):

    Found this review of the movie by a South African, and it made me notice things I hadn’t. So I thought I’d share it:

    http://asubtleknife.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/science-fiction-in-the-ghetto-loving-the-alien/

    Hope you find it as interesting as I did.

  • Thanks for the link, Hank!

    I thought MaryAnn’s review was spot on about so many things that I left out of my review. One of the things I really appreciated about the film was the integrity of its visual imagination. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that functioned so well on this level since Blade Runner.

    But thanks especially for this sentence “I had the distinct sense that I’d never seen a science fiction movie before this one, it’s so perfectly executed. How could it not be? Its recent history may be slightly different, but this is our world, beset by the same dark impulses of greed, bigotry, and delusion.”

    I think that’s always true of the best science fiction: that it is news from the present, as it were. Perhaps one of the reasons why it has taken a science fiction film to speak so directly and truly about South Africa – and South African reality to make SF seem so real. What if South Africa – with its confluence of racism, violence, technology, despair and hope, IS the future? The one that we’re already living in?

  • wow! just came back from reading The Subtle Knife review/essay on District 9 and it was extremely well-done, and gave a nice, quick view into South African culture/history/outlook which enhanced my memory of the film.

    all readers/writers/viewers of science fiction media know that all s/f worlds are merely stand-ins for our own. D9 did a better job than most at pointing out our human qualities — both good and ill — and opening an on-going dialogue to discuss it.

  • Les Carr

    While I agree that this film is wonderful (and isn’t it great to get an international commentary on a film that provides multiple readings from different national experiences all converging on the same human values) I have to confess that during the first half of the film I kept thinking that it was Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords) who was in the starring role.

  • All right, District 9 meeting. Obesandjo?

    “Present.”

    Christopher Johnson?

    “click click blarglegarg.”

    Wikus… present.

  • MaryAnn

    The very earliest “recorded” footage of boarding the mothership has a time stamp of 1982. So really, the events depicted in District 9, would only have occurred in 2002. Exactly 2 decades; if it was longer, the movie would have said something like 25 years (2007).

    I only noticed that 1982 date on subsequent viewings… but after I did, I took extra special notice of the timestamps on the videos of the immediate events here (the eviction, Wikus’s transformation, the attack on MNU HQ, etc). And ALL of those are dated August 2010.

  • MaryAnn

    On a technical note, it seemed odd to me that it was shot in what appeared to be 16:9 instead of theatrical widescreen.

    Why? The film is aping the look of documentaries, CCTV footage, etc — none of that is shot in theatrical widescreen.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    An excellent review of an excellent film. One little point that I thought was interesting:

    the survivors are all drones, and figuratively and literally directionless without their dead leadership; they’re just about able to take care of themselves on a subsistence level, and certain pose no threat of, saying, taking over Planet Earth.

    I’m not so sure this is true. I mean, it says so in the faux-documentary at the start of the film, but a lot of the talking heads in that are spouting viewpoints that are bigoted and factually inaccurate.

    What we actually see of the aliens – through Blomkamp’s objective lens rather than the fictional documentarian’s subjective lens – doesn’t seem to support that. It’s not just that they can operate complex spaceships and weapons, because who knows? Perhaps they’re born with that instinct. But they also clearly have personalities. There’s no reason to suspect that Christopher Johnson is unique in this regard; all the aliens Wikus asks for a signature at the start of the film react in different ways. They don’t seem to be brainless workers, but it is useful for a government that seeks to dehumanise (dealienise?) them to pretend that they are.

    But the thing that really persuaded me that they’re not drones is a brief shot early on of one of the aliens apparently holding – and getting ready to fire – a human gun. They’ve landed on another planet and they already know how to use the technology? That’s more than the humans could do with their alien technology. They’re not dumb at all.

  • Hank Graham

    SPOILERS

    Der Bruno: No, I accept that the prawns are mostly drones. We do have the scene with the Nigrerians, in which they act very, very stupid. I just took it that while these were mostly drones, there were a few scientist/decision-makers hiding in plain sight among them, the way Wikus is hiding among them at the end.

    The big mystery for me was what happened to this expedition, and why it was mostly drones left on the ship after coming to Earth.

    Some friends who I saw it with thought that the aliens were peaceful, because they didn’t show up and start shooting, but my take on that is that no peaceful race is going to have all the weaponry that these aliens seem to have been carrying.

    My own pocket theory is that this was an invasion, but that something happened before they got to Earth, and most of the ruler class aliens died. If you look at the start of the film carefully, when the crew is first getting into the alien mothership, you can see what look like pockmarks on a wall from zap gun fire, I think. I didn’t notice it the first time I saw the film, and of course I could be wrong.

  • Robert P

    On a technical note, it seemed odd to me that it was shot in what appeared to be 16:9 instead of theatrical widescreen.

    Why? The film is aping the look of documentaries, CCTV footage, etc — none of that is shot in theatrical widescreen.

    The fact that the theater I saw it in just had the 16:9 image, with the edges of the projector gate very obvious in the middle of the larger screen without closing the curtains to frame it – assuming they even can – probably made it more stark. As I recall it slipped in and out of “documentary” style. I assumed it was more a budget issue than a style issue.

  • Hi Bruno

    I tend to go with your interpretation. As you point out, there are not many grounds for giving the talking heads at the start of the movie much credibility. One of them is an entomologist, FFS; he knows about insects, not about aliens.

    The point about the aliens is that they are aliens. Everything we can make up about them (drones, etc etc) is simply projection. A lot of their behaviour contradicts our ‘insect’ fantasy. The close bond between ‘Christopher’ and his child (who calls him ‘father’, for instance). All we know about them is that they are in crisis, and that they have to hang around on earth while their spaceship is undergoing temporary repairs. As for the rest… ‘drones’, invasion… I don’t know. That’s what we make up about something (someone) that we don’t know anything about.

  • Grinebiter

    I’m with Andries. The talking heads don’t know, we don’t know, and it doesn’t look like Wikus got around to asking his new buddy.

    Just come home from seeing it. Thanks to the reviews and this thread, I knew what was going to happen practically every step of the way, but I was still on tenterhooks, and this is from the guy who usually dozes through shoot-em-ups. I wonder how much of it was the score. It was like they were using subsonics or something to inculcate a sense of dread. If anything, it was even better than anticipated.

    I would like to mention that for at least a decade I have been out of the habit of going to the movies, preferring to wait to rent the DVD, or for it to come to the TV. I came to this forum after many years of following MAJ as one of my top five reviewers (the others being Ebert, Berardini, Zacharek and Edelman), and not too long after I found her slaughtering a movie that apparently everyone liked but we two. Unfortunately I’m getting so old and forgetful that I can’t remember which one it was……. Anyway, once here I find myself disadvantaged by my out-of-dateness, so have decided to stay downtown more often and see some releases. The weather has taken a turn today that meant I was stiff to the point of being crippled when I got out of my seat. Had to tell someone waiting behind me on the stairs: “I’m not becoming a prawn, it’s just rheumatism”.

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