Friday, August 14, 2009

District 9’s Low-Rent Housing Offers Great Value

District 9

Normally once the midway point of August hits I usually set my sights on both the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF.) and the fall movie season in general. This is the time when studios release a bunch of movies, that should have gone straight to video in the first place, in a last ditch attempt for our summer dollars. Luckily that has all changed this year as August finally brought a film, District 9, worth getting excited about.

Twenty-eight years ago an alien ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. After three months of watching the spacecraft just hover in the sky, the government decides to take it upon themself to initiate first contact. Once inside the ship, they are surprised to find millions of malnourished aliens who seem to be without a leader. Adhering to the philosophy of keeping your friends close and your enemy’s closer, the government sets up a small ghetto, known as District 9, where the aliens will be able to live peacefully segregated from the human race. While the notion of respecting the aliens “creature rights” seems like a good idea at first, District 9 soon becomes a riddled with poverty and criminal activates.

Eventually the people of Johannesburg get fed up with the Prawns, as the aliens are degradingly referred to as, and demand that the government gets the aliens out of their city. Unfortunately the government is not quite ready to see the Prawns leave just yet; instead they decided to move them to an even smaller concentration camp style site just outside of the city. The government enlist the Multi-National United corporation, who also happen to be the worlds second largest weapons manufacturer, to go into District 9 and get the Prawns to sign off on the transfer papers. As this will be a massive undertaking, it will require the right person to oversee it. Which is why it comes as a shock to everyone when Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is selected. While well liked by his peers, Wikus’s personality does not scream authoritative in the least. His only interesting quality is the fact that he is fortunate enough to be married to the boss’s daughter. As the MNU begin to make their way through District 9, Wikus realizes that the Prawns are hiding both weapons and secrets. One secret seems to involve a canister whose contents will ultimately change Wikus’s life forever.

One of the reasons District 9 works so well is that it completely turns the conventional alien invasion story upside down. There have been several “aliens walk among us” style films in the past, yet I cannot recall any in which the creatures looked like aliens and still had this much human personality. Often the alien must take on a human form before they can safely interact with us. In District 9, the Prawns are giving so much personality that at times you forget that you are watching two different species conversing. By giving the Prawns so many human characteristics, writer/director Neill Blomkamp allows us to see the various forms of the Prawns evolutions.

Prawns such as Christopher Johnson, and his son, display their intelligence through the knowledge of science, being able to articulate their rights under law, learning to read English, etc. There are Prawns who live simple lives and raise families; others have gotten caught up in alcoholism and the world of organized crime. All of this is a far cry from the typical aliens coming to earth to destroy mankind ideology which science fiction movies have fed us over the years. In fact, the film never really delves into why the Prawns came in the first place. It is just not that important. The film is more concerned with looking at how society treats “the other”; the inherent prejudices we have in regards to race, or in this case species, social and economical status, etc.

Although District 9 has a rather weighty subtext, this film is far from a downer. In fact the action sequences and special effects in this film were far more exhilarating than anything in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Which is saying a lot when you consider that the budget for this film, estimated at 30 million, is rather minuscule in comparison to the blockbuster style films released this summer. Yet it must be noted that District 9 is surprisingly gory flick at times. Not that this is a bad thing per say, especially when dealing with content such as this, but the gore does catch you off guard nonetheless.

Come to think of it, the entire film catches you off guard as you are never quiet know what is going to happen at any given moment. While producer Peter Jackson’s name helped get District 9 released in theatres, the majority of the accolades must go to both Neill Blomkamp and Shartlo Copey. Blomkamp skillfully manages to make a film that is refreshingly unique in a genre that had, until now, become rather mundane. As for newcomer Copey, he is wonderful in the role of Wikus. Shartlo does a great job of conveying a simple man whose must survive on his own under extraordinary circumstances. It is fascinating to see how Wikus’s relationship with Christopher Johnson evolves through the film. There interaction runs the gambit in regards to emotions, and motive, yet it never once seems dull or formulaic. In a summer, and to a certain extent a year, in which originality in cinema seems to be relegated to only the independent theatres, it is refreshing to see a film like District 9 receive a wide release. District 9 not only provides a refreshingly unique tale, but a fun journey as well.

For more Big Thoughts From A Small Mind's 2009 Reviews


  1. Nice review --- it's good when unexpected films sneak up on the scene as big success' it makes you excited because it means the years film schedule has it's own unpredictable nature and that some films can get the hype just because their good not because they star Brad Pitt.

  2. I agree that the effects were very impressive. The Prawns really looked like they belonged in the real world, which is impressive considereing the film's (relatively) small budget. The concept of Apartheid's history being re-written (or is this a second Apartheid?) in South Africa was a solid one that I was on board for.

    Having said that, the second, more action-oriented half of the movie really hit the wrong note for me. I was so caught up in the hard-edged faux documentary style of the opening 25 minutes that witnessing a buddy action film was a letdown. Apart from the mech warrior scene, I didn't find the action all that thilling either. Seeing a man explode from an electric pulse is cool once or twice, but not 15 times. I saw the movie a few days ago and since then I've cooled down a bit, but I still can't say I was very satisfied with District 9

  3. This film is a perfect example of expectations spoiling the viewing. I had heard so many good reviews from critics I was looking forward to a real SF film, not sci-fi. Unfortunately, that's not what the film was.

    Had I walked in knowing nothing at all about the film I probably would have thought, "not bad at all." Unfortunately, with my expectations being too high I ended up being disappointed with it.

    It can really be summed up as the first third is Alien Nation, the second third is The Fly remake, and the final third is Rambo. (All 80s movies, by the way.)

    That would have been entertaining had I not been expecting something else.


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