District 9

Movie Information

The Story: Following an accident with a mysterious liquid in the District 9 alien-internment camp, a civil servant finds his worldview altered by alarming changes. The Lowdown: A thoughtful, surprisingly deep science-fiction film with an even more surprising emotional core.
Score:

Genre: Science Fiction/Drama
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Mandka Gaduka, Kenneth Nkosi
Rated: R

I hated the trailer for District 9. It looked like yet another sci-fi crapfest of the Transformers school. My net nerd friends had done nothing to help with their constant insistence that District 9 was going to be “awesome”—a prognostication they espoused for reasons I never understood (because it was a hit at Comic-Con?). They knew no more about it than I did, had never seen anything by director Neill Blomkamp and had never heard of anyone in the cast. Then circumstances forced me to screen District 9 at 10 in the morning. I was absolutely primed to hate this movie. However, it turns out that I pretty much loved it—and, yeah, it could qualify as awesome.

I actually can’t say exactly what I expected District 9 to be, but it had little relation to the film itself. I think I was expecting dumb sci-fi action tarted up with obvious allegories to apartheid (thanks to its South African setting) and branches leading toward broader vistas of prejudices. I suppose it does fulfill the second, but much more effectively than I expected. But it’s never even close to dumb sci-fi action, though it does contain action. There was nothing about the trailer or the word on the net to suggest that District 9 might have a solid story and some characters with a little depth—yet, it has both. And that’s what really makes the film remarkable.

If you’ve followed the film’s existence at all, you’re probably aware of the premise. For those who aren’t: Years ago an alien spacecraft appeared in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the aliens therein—incapable of getting back to their own world—were placed into a kind of internment camp called District 9. This was done not in the least because the aliens were markedly—even unpleasantly—different from us, being something like a cross between an insect and a crustacean. It didn’t help that dietary habits were unsettling—a propensity for canned cat food will do that. In any event, District 9 has become a horrible slum filled with criminal activities and possible revolutionary activities, so the aliens are to be moved to a new camp farther away from the city.

In charge of this is a none-too-bright and spectacularly unenlightened civil servant, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who has no particular qualifications except that his wife, Tania (Vanessa Haywood), happens to be the daughter of a cabinet minister. Wikus views this as his big chance and barges right into District 9, as if getting the aliens—whom he regards as less than human—to sign away their property and agree to move elsewhere is merely a matter of form. Not surprisingly, things aren’t that simple—especially when he comes across a particularly bright alien—and Wikus quickly makes a hash of things, as well as spraying himself in the face with a strange liquid discovered in the alien’s shack. Anyone with a working knowledge of science fiction knows more or less where this is going. What’s interesting is the way the movie does it and what it does with it.

Having established Wikus as prejudiced against the aliens, the inevitable change he undergoes becomes a sci-fi variant on the 1970 Melvin Van Peebles’ film Watermelon Man, in which a white racist (Godfrey Cambridge in white makeup) finds himself transformed into a black man (Godfrey Cambridge without makeup). (Yes, the idea has cropped up elsewhere, but that’s the origin.) The approach to the change is a weird blend of Cronenbergian body horror (especially The Fly) with a nod to the 1959 version of The Fly and possibly The Quatermass Experiment (1955)—and a dose of the kind of gross-out humor one finds in producer Peter Jackson’s early horror comedies. There are other connections to Jackson’s films. Wikus is ultimately not very different from the hero of Jackson’s 1992 splatter comedy Dead Alive (aka Braindead), while the officials here are similar to a number of Jackson characters.

While Jackson’s fingerprints are obviously on District 9, Blomkamp has his own agenda, points and style. There’s a depth here and a kind of character growth that’s removed from Jackson’s comedic counterparts. Wikus grows from an unlikable, ineffectual character into one who has understanding forced on him—and grows from this into a weird kind of heroism that’s surprising in that it’s as touching as it is satisfying.

There’s also a complexity of events that’s far ahead of what you may expect from the film. This is no throwaway effects fest, but instead it’s a story worth telling that happens to require effects. In other words, the effects support the story, which is the way it should be. If what you’re looking for is a Transformers or Independence Day, this is not the movie for you. But if you’re looking for a film with a heart and a soul that isn’t afraid to examine the essence of what it means—and what it might cost—to be human, District 9 is the movie to seek out. Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

40 thoughts on “District 9

  1. Its great a movie like this could get the necessary funding. I didn’t think it was in the pantheon of great movies, but definitely enjoyable and thought-provoking, which is more than can be said of most sci/fi fantasy films.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I didn’t think it was in the pantheon of great movies

    I’m always a little hesitant to label anything great right off the bat, but the further away I get from District 9, the more I think it at least flirts with greatness.

  3. Rob Close

    I rather enjoyed it – though I wished that I hadn’t read anything about it ahead of time. Definitely kept my attention the whole time. Not sure how I feel about the ending, but I’m not complaining. Far more intelligent than most of the genre.

  4. Dread P. Roberts

    Wikus grows from an unlikable, ineffectual character into one who has understanding forced on him—and grows from this into a weird kind of heroism that’s surprising in that it’s as touching as it is satisfying.

    I think that Sharlto Copley’s (Wikus) performance is a big part of what makes this movie so good. His character’s evolving transformation feels flawlessly portrayed. According to IMDB this is his first acting gig; if that’s true, than I’m impressed.

    Another thing that was enjoyable was the feeling I got, that this rookie director, Neill Blomkamp, managed to achieve what the great and mighty Steven Spielberg has often tried to do, and for me, failed. To be more specific, District 9 seemed to have a similar ‘outcast human/misunderstood alien’ relationship premise, as the Spielberg movie that I strongly dislike, E.T., which didn’t do anything for me. There might even be an argument for similarities to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I wouldn’t really know, since I never managed to make it all the way through that one.

  5. TokyoTaos

    The only thing I would disagree with in this review is the stated genre: Science Fiction/Drama. While those elements are there there’s also some great comedic touches. The film starts out very much like the TV mockumentary The Office with Copley very much like the South African version of an incompetent Steve Carell. The tone and style of the movie changes as it progresses and that’s what I loved about it – it was so many things wrapped into one. The best way I can describe it to people in a nutshell is as a sort of Office/Blair Witch/Aliens hybrid.

  6. Ken Hanke

    The best way I can describe it to people in a nutshell is as a sort of Office/Blair Witch/Aliens hybrid.

    See, if you described it that way to me, I’d go see something else.

    You are, however, right about it having comedic touches — though most effective dramas do. The tone shifts are interestingly accomplished, too. I was watching part of it again tonight and was interested to see that the documentary business pretty much stops at the point that Wikus becomes ill — the point where what’s happening becomes personal to him and it’s no longer possible to be objective about it. There are still elements of documentary, though, in the video monitor footage, newscasts, etc.

  7. “Neill Blomkamp, managed to achieve what the great and mighty Steven Spielberg has often tried to do, and for me, failed.”

    I think you are misjudging Spielberg, as most critics do. Remember in “ET” the government basically tortures and kills him. Obviously, his friendship with the boy endures and that kind of optimistic view of love turns off some people. “Close Encounters” is a similarly optimistic view of what peaceful contact with another planet might entail, filmed with great beauty and wonder. “District 9″ is just a darker more visceral film, but I think Spielberg’s work is legitimate as well. But everyone assumes that no one as popular as Spielberg good actually be doing good art. They said the same thing about Charles Dickens.

  8. Dread P. Roberts

    I think you are misjudging Spielberg, as most critics do.

    In this instance, it’s not so much Spielberg that I’m judging, as it is his movies about aliens. He’s made other movies, about other things, that I do enjoy.

    Obviously, his friendship with the boy endures and that kind of optimistic view of love turns off some people.

    Well, it’s not an optimistic view of love that turns me off, I’m all for that type of thing. It’s the somewhat cheesy and by-the-book ‘approach’ that I don’t really buy into. I just never related to the alien love in E.T. . I never cared about E.T., he was just a stupid play-dough puppet to me. Without that crucial audience connection, the whole thing just falls apart. If it worked for you, then great.

    But everyone assumes that no one as popular as Spielberg good actually be doing good art.

    Well, I don’t know everyone, so I’m not going to speak for them, or argue over for their sake; but for me personally, that’s total BS.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Well, I don’t know everyone, so I’m not going to speak for them, or argue over for their sake; but for me personally, that’s total BS.

    It’s a hard charge to support when applied to someone (as in my case) who owns every Beatle album ever made.

  10. J. Carter

    Great review Ken. I can’t be sure, but I think what I enjoyed most about the film was the tight editing. Although, in retrospect, the film danced around what could be called cliche in terms of its overtones about racism, the subtle care in editing and pacing made me embrace where I would otherwise bristle.

  11. Erik Harrison

    I’m glad the word out of this flick is so positive. The trailer really worried me – I’ve seen a couple of the director’s short films, including Alive in Joburg, which District 9 is a considerably expanded version of. But the trailer was indeed disappointing.

  12. Jessica B.

    Says Hanke: “Spielberg ain’t Charles Dickens.”

    Of course he isn’t. Spielberg is a filmmaker, Dickens was essentially a pulp writer. Both men’s work was crafted to appeal to the masses, but Dickens had the good fortune to have been accepted as by the literati as “art”. He was still a pulp writer. (Which is how Ray Bradbury also describes himself.)

  13. Ken Hanke

    Of course he isn’t. Spielberg is a filmmaker, Dickens was essentially a pulp writer. Both men’s work was crafted to appeal to the masses, but Dickens had the good fortune to have been accepted as by the literati as “art”.

    The big difference — or one of them — is that Dickens knew he was a popular writer (not quite the same as a pulp writer), Spielberg thinks he’s more than that.

  14. Piffy!

    I also found this movie surprisingly good. Surprising because the ads I saw made it look like a crappy Transformers sort of flick, when it was actually a smart, well-done sci-fi, with layers of interpretation and meaning.

    Perhaps the point of the ad campaign was to bring in the Transformers fans, and allow the rest to hear about it through reviews and word of mouth, but i suspect they just didnt get what the movie was about.

  15. Piffy!

    I also found this movie surprisingly good. Surprising because the ads I saw made it look like a crappy Transformers sort of flick, when it was actually a smart, well-done sci-fi, with layers of interpretation and meaning.

    Perhaps the point of the ad campaign was to bring in the Transformers fans, and allow the rest to hear about it through reviews and word of mouth, but i suspect they just didnt get what the movie was about.

  16. Ken Hanke

    Perhaps the point of the ad campaign was to bring in the Transformers fans, and allow the rest to hear about it through reviews and word of mouth

    Whatever the plan, the movie held on surprisingly well, coming in at no. 2 this weekend, bringing its cumulative gross up to $73 million. (Working on a 60-40 or 55-45 split with the theaters, that still puts it into the the profit column.)

  17. Son of Rufus

    Sharlto Copley was awesome and the movie would have probably been terrible without him. Overall I’d prolly give it a 6.5. I did think the movie was lacking that “something” that makes a good movie great which all the recent Africa movies I have watched seem to lack. “The Last King of Scotland” and especially “Blood Diamond” come to mind. Both very average movies that could have been great.

  18. LL

    The trailer obviously doesn’t give you any real indication of what the film is about…..and that turned out to be a good thing.
    I was a bit bored in the beginning and turned off by the faux documentary device, but by the end I was actually on the edge of my seat and moved by the resolution of the storyline

  19. Ken Hanke

    Sharlto Copley was awesome

    No argument there.

    the movie would have probably been terrible without him.

    Not sure I’d go that far, especially since we’re not likely to see what another actor might or might not have done with the role.

    I’m assuming your 6.5 is on a 1 to 10 scale, which makes it low for me. I haven’t decided if I think this is great or merely very good. (I’m a little skeptical of leaping at a conclusion because it was simply so much better than I’d expected.)

    On the other hand, I’d agree on Last King and Blood Diamond, though the latter struck me as about 90-100 minutes of solid action movie that was ill-advisedly beefed up to excessive length in order to add attempts at being important.

    Have you tried Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener?

    And would I be correct that you indeed are the son of Rufus?

  20. Son of Rufus

    we’re not likely to see what another actor might or might not have done with the role.

    True. I think I was referring that it was good it wasn’t some usual A-list actor but your point is still valid.

    Have you tried Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener?

    Hotel Rwanda was great, The Constant Gardener was not. I seem to be sensing a pattern, the movie actually about Africans was awesome and movies that use Africa as a backdrop for the redemption of a white man aren’t. Of course Hotel Rwanda was definitely bolstered by awesome performances by both Cheadle and Nolte.

    And would I be correct that you indeed are the son of Rufus?

    Indeed. Listened to any good Jethro Tull records recently? And please do all you can to point my father toward things that are worthwhile to watch! The last thing Rufus rented rhymed with Borgetting Farah Tarshall (needless to say I was neither consulted nor a party that watched that “film”).

  21. PenKap

    The Constant Gardener was about the redemption of a White Man?

    I thought it was about the pharmaceutical industry using Africans as Guinea Pigs

  22. Ken Hanke

    The Constant Gardener was not

    Well, I might draw the line at great, but I sense a basic difference of opinion on this one.

    Listened to any good Jethro Tull records recently?

    Actually, no, nor any CDs come to that. I think the last entire album I made time to sit down and listen to was Message from the Country by The Move.

    And please do all you can to point my father toward things that are worthwhile to watch! The last thing Rufus rented rhymed with Borgetting Farah Tarshall (needless to say I was neither consulted nor a party that watched that “film”).

    Oh, dear. I see he has fallen in darkness’ shadow again. I’ll see if I can goose him into something a little less…well, plebian. I can’t promise results — he can be very stubborn — but I’ll give it a try.

  23. Son of Rufus

    I thought it was about the pharmaceutical industry using Africans as Guinea Pigs.

    It is about that definitely but it is also about him trying to find out if his wife really loved him or if their marriage was a lie. Pretty redemptive.

    I’ll give it a try.

    That’s all I ask for.

  24. Ken Hanke

    That’s all I ask for.

    It might help if I’d get around to sending him that copy of Golddiggers of 1933 I promised — put him in a receptive mood.

  25. Rufus

    Oh, dear. I see he has fallen in darkness’ shadow again.

    I considered trying to defend myself, but I’ll admit, some things can be pretty indefensible…

    he can be very stubborn

    Who can be very stubborn???

  26. Ken Hanke

    Who can be very stubborn???

    I am the very model of reason — as long as you agree with me, of course.

  27. John

    Just saw the film last night and was very entertained. Wikus’s Kafkaesque physical transformation mirroring his transformation of conciousness was an effective device. I liked the contrast between the repuslive exoskelatons, the glottal robotic language, and the disturbingly jerky insect-like movements of the aliens, and their huge soft brown eyes. That Wikus’s newfound empathy arrives as one of these limpid alien eyes replaces his own was powerful visually. I just wish the narrative had offerred more explanation as to the sociology, biology, and culture of the aliens. Why didn’t they use their own sought-after weapons technology to resist human oppression. Some employed violent resistence to significant effect, where others were entirely passive. I missed the first 10 minutes of the film unfortunately, but I have a feeling questions would remain.

  28. Ken Hanke

    I missed the first 10 minutes of the film unfortunately, but I have a feeling questions would remain

    Questions would, but it may explain the technology aspect, since, if memory serves, the only ones alive on the ship are a worker class of limited intellect (or at least that’s what the humans believe).

  29. Sean Williams

    a prognostication they espoused for reasons I never understood

    Speaking as a ‘Net nerd myself, I have no idea how this sort of buzz develops. What makes people so certain about the quality of unreleased films that they feel justified in lynching dissenters on Rotten Tomatoes?

    It’s enough to make one feel sorry for Armond White, who isn’t quite as terrible a critic as his reputation would suggest.

  30. Ken Hanke

    What makes people so certain about the quality of unreleased films that they feel justified in lynching dissenters on Rotten Tomatoes?

    I haven’t quite figured out how anyone feels justified in lynching someone (even figuratively) over a movie review if it comes to that. I mean, really, unless you’re the filmmaker or a close personal friend of the filmmaker (which I fear a lot of fans delude themselves into thinking), that level of anger seems peculiar to say the least.

    My best guess continues to be that these folks are so shaky in their beliefs that any dissent nags at them that maybe they’re wrong.

    It’s enough to make one feel sorry for Armond White, who isn’t quite as terrible a critic as his reputation would suggest.

    I’d not feel too sorry for him. Do you realize the kind of readership numbers the man has because of this? He’s a little goldmine for his paper. But you’re right he’s not that terrible. I’ve rarely read a review of his that wasn’t interesting. He often makes good, valid points — and then undermines them (for me) by praising something utterly screwy like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He also gets so wrapped up in his own critical observations that I often end up having no clue what point he thinks he’s making or why. Still, he’s actually thinking about these films. When I see some of the…stuff that passes for critical writing on Rotten Tomatoes, White’s oddness becomes positively refreshing — even if I agree with him very rarely.

  31. john r

    I saw this one last week, and even though I agree with many of the positive thoughts about the film listed above, I just didn’t care for it much. I think the ending felt a little hollow. Though most of the movie the lead seemed to be completely selfish, just wanting his own life restored to normal. By the end of the movie he seemed to be too selfless for someone that spent so much time and energy on his own desires.

  32. Sean Williams

    I’ve rarely read a review of his that wasn’t interesting.

    I remember thinking that his review of Doubt was a masterpiece of film criticism, although I didn’t agree with his conclusions at all. At least he’s aware of cinematography and editing and thematic undertones.

    and then undermines them (for me) by praising something utterly screwy like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

    Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is one of the more defensible films he’s praised. We’re talking about a man who calls Michael Bay a master director.

    He also gets so wrapped up in his own critical observations that I often end up having no clue what point he thinks he’s making or why.

    See, I thought it was just me. I don’t avoid the man’s columns because I disagree with him; I avoid them because they exist pocket universe whose standards are so self-referential that they’re meaningless to outside observers.

    some of the…stuff that passes for critical writing on Rotten Tomatoes

    Well, I agree with Peter Travers and Rex Reed more often than I agree with Armond White, but those two never say anything more substantial than “I liked it.”

    White’s oddness becomes positively refreshing

    I wouldn’t go quite that far, if only because I find White’s tone too personal — he always inserts some jab at the critics and fans who disagree with him. (Yes, I realize that the R.T. fanboys are doing the same thing to White.)

  33. Ken Hanke

    See, I thought it was just me. I don’t avoid the man’s columns because I disagree with him; I avoid them because they exist pocket universe whose standards are so self-referential that they’re meaningless to outside observers

    That a tendency to lean on the kind of jargon where you feel like simply asking, “Say which?”

    Well, I agree with Peter Travers and Rex Reed more often than I agree with Armond White, but those two never say anything more substantial than “I liked it.”

    That’s kind of my point.

    I wouldn’t go quite that far, if only because I find White’s tone too personal—he always inserts some jab at the critics and fans who disagree with him. (Yes, I realize that the R.T. fanboys are doing the same thing to White.)

    Which may be why it doesn’t bother me — especially because I see far too many people who seem to me to worry that they might upset the fanboys and won’t go against the tide.

  34. K.J.H. Childers

    I had my first chance to watch this film late last night.
    Having missed it in the theater, renting was my next best option.
    That said, under the influence of a dark living room, headphones and my MacBook, I proceeded to be taken into a world I didn’t expect. “Ludicrous” is a fine critical word to describe the actions of Mr. Van De Merwe, if he actually believed he’d make it out of this ghetto alive. It was almost laughable to me as I watched this “matter of form” unfold under the aegis of the assault rifle. Once the protagonist unknowingly seals his fate, humanity is portrayed without an inkling of humaneness, seeking only a way to satisfy its desire to utilize the alien weaponry, including the brutal Nigerian Lord of the District. Thus, Mr. Van De Merwe and his metamorphosis into an alien is a complex example of humanity’s need to deviate from the norm in order to progress, if I may be so bold as to quote F. Zappa. My point is simple — once a few do progress, those who are in control or are unwilling to allow the change to occur, will stop at nothing to stop the few … Mr. Van De Merwe is a martyr, a friend, and best of all, more human than human.

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