In 1982, the planet Earth was shocked to its core when an alien vessel began hovering over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. An investigation of the spaceship turns up a population of malnourished aliens. Nicknamed “prawns”, the South African government decided to confine the aliens to a camp designated District 9. It is now the year 2010. Following a period of severe unrest between the aliens and the locals, the government hires the services of Multinational United (MNU), a private military company, to relocate the aliens to a new camp. Piet Smit, a prominent MNU executive, appoints his son-in-law, Wikus van de Merve, an Afrikaner bureaucrat, to oversee the forced migration. Little does anybody know that this routine operation will ultimately disrupt the South African government’s eighteen years of institutionalized speciesism.
District 9 is the directorial debut of South African-born filmmaker Neill Blomkamp. He started his work in the late nineties as a special effects artist and 3D animator. The credits of Stargate SG-1, First Wave, and Mercy Point all bear his name. He managed to get his first job as the lead animator for the cyberpunk television program Dark Angel, which was created by James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee in 2000. It was a fairly successful show, though it proved to be somewhat divisive. Critics praised it for its female empowerment themes while panning certain plot developments.
Regardless, Neill Blomkamp was making a name for himself, and eventually found himself directing a trilogy of live-action short films known as Landfall. They were made in 2007 and set in the Halo universe to promote the highly anticipated third installment. After proving his worth, Mr. Blomkamp was slated to direct his first feature-length film. Appropriately enough, it was to be an adaption of the Halo franchise. Producing the film would be Peter Jackson, who directed the universally lauded The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unfortunately, these plans never came to fruition. The relationship between 20th Century Fox and Blomkamp deteriorated to the point where the project was unable to continue, signifying its demise.
Luckily for Mr. Blomkamp, there was a silver lining. Mr. Jackson, impressed with Mr. Blomkamp’s short film, Alive in Joburg, agreed to produce a feature-length adaptation. Thus, after an extensive retooling process, District 9 saw its release in August of 2009. Aided by an extensive viral marketing campaign that began in 2008 at the San Diego Comic-Con, District 9 was a critical and commercial success, receiving four Academy Award nominations in four different categories. To this day, it is considered one of the quintessential films of early twenty-first century science fiction.
Going into this film for the first time, I could certainly see how it managed to capture the attention of critics in 2009. The first portions of this film are shot like a documentary. It’s a clever way of providing exposition to the audience without resorting to the hackneyed approach of having characters remind each other of information they should already know. What you’re seeing is a document that exists within this universe. This approach is abandoned once the plot begins in earnest, but the transition does feel natural.
During the Academy Award season, District 9 would be nominated for Best Visual Effects. Though it certainly had stiff competition in the form of James Cameron’s Avatar, District 9 manages to be an impressive effort itself when it comes to visuals. Everything is shot in a dirty style that highlights just how poor the aliens’ living conditions are. This tone extends to the dialogue as well. The moment that stuck out in my mind was when the MNU handed one of the aliens an official document. Said alien proceeds to curse the man out, swatting the document out of his hands. There is no innocuous term used as a family-friendly substitute; it translates the alien’s line as a real swear word. This and many other subtle facets were doubtlessly used to introduce a dose of realism to an otherwise fantastical situation.
Things get particularly interesting when Wikus gets sprayed with some kind of fluid the aliens were handling. After that moment, his body tissue begins to mutate. Once the MNU finds out about this, they detain him, shipping him off to headquarters where he is to be vivisected. He escapes at the last minute, but he is labeled a fugitive when a smear story claims he contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the aliens. This development is arguably where District 9 shines the most; it’s a science fiction twist on the classic tale involving contemptable person being transformed into what they hate.
District 9 also featured something rarely seen in films by 2009: an alien single parent. Much of the film revolves around an alien named Christopher Johnson and his son. Once Wikus begins transforming, a lot of the conflict is the result of him getting over his prejudices and assisting Christopher on his mission to leave Earth. Combined with the antagonistic MNU, it makes for a very tense situation all around.
With an interesting premise and a unique brand of storytelling, District 9 would appear to have it all. Moreover, with a cast largely unknown at the time, it’s easy to get the impression that it won its accolades honestly than by relying heavily on star power. Unfortunately, I would have to say that actually examining the film in depth reveals a litany of problems. To find the fatal flaw of District 9, one need not look further than the premise used as the plot’s foundation. The film wants its audience to accept that humanity’s reaction to making first contact is to throw the aliens into the slums. No reasonable attempt to actually study the aliens or find out where they came from was apparently made in the eighteen years that passed between their arrival and 2010. Keep in mind that humanity once engineered entire transcontinental trade routes in an effort to obtain silk. That they would callously throw aliens into the slums is unrealistically cynical, and it’s extremely disingenuous and even a little irresponsible to claim it’s realistic.
The premise also begins to fall apart when you examine the year in which the aliens landed: 1982. In the wake of Apollo 11’s success in 1969, the idea of interstellar travel was at the height of its popularity throughout the seventies. In 1974, humanity sent out the Arecibo message in the hope that intelligent life from across the universe might receive and decipher it. This reflected in pop culture of the era as well. From Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, films about space travel and first contact were both nearly ubiquitous and highly popular. Then in 1982, when extraterrestrial life did finally descend upon earth, humanity apparently forgot about all that and threw the aliens in the slums. Forget 1982 – I am going to posit that even the single most jaded person on the planet today would be in complete awe over the prospect of making first contact. It’s possible that this unrealistic premise was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. After all, District 9 is the film in which cat food is revealed to be a highly addictive drug to the aliens. However, if that’s true, it just makes the allegory around which the film revolves difficult to take seriously.
A lot of fans when faced with somebody who didn’t like the film claimed said detractor didn’t understand the allegory. In reality, it’s not at all difficult to grasp. With its setting and basic premise, District 9 is clearly meant to allude to the Apartheid Era in South Africa. From a period roughly spanning 1948 to 1994, it was the most visible nation on Earth to operate on the long-since debunked theory of “scientific racism” – the belief that certain races are objectively better than others. Though I don’t fault Mr. Blomkamp for wanting to raise awareness of the atrocities committed in this era, I feel it would’ve been more viable to drop the metaphors and make a film about the Apartheid Era; it’s not as though there’s a shortage of interesting stories to tell. Instead, we get a film that reduces a complex, systemic subject with innumerable nuances to a series of puerile, inane metaphors. The aliens are good, the humans are bad, and anyone capable of challenging that notion is conveniently swept under the rug.
On a more basic level, District 9 fails because, at the end of the day, there’s no one to carry the film. Wikus is thoroughly unlikeable; when he likens the roasting of an alien egg sac to the sounds of popcorn, it makes it impossible to root for him. He becomes slightly more sympathetic when he begins transforming into an alien, but not enough for me to overlook his past transgressions. It almost would’ve been better had he been flat-out evil because at least then, the film has a definite stance on his character. As it stands, he’s neither likable enough to be a hero nor unlikable enough to be a villain. While I can appreciate a complex, flawed protagonist, this script’s overall lack of subtlety makes the idea difficult to accept. His character improves by the end, but the development required a complete physical transformation to happen, cheapening the arc.
Meanwhile, Christopher and his son are more likeable, but I have to say the empathy is more in response to the bad things that happen to them. When attempting to sum up their personalities, you realize that they, much like the humans, only exist as plot devices to further the director’s message. You feel for Christopher because the idea of the government or any other powerful organization unjustly taking away one’s children is a fear that is easy to identify with. It does make their eventual escape at the end somewhat satisfying, but I feel the writers didn’t do everything they could to earn that moment. Indeed, given the short amount of time in which the plot is resolved, it raises the question of why the aliens never used their superior technology against the humans at any point. Any attempts to suppress them should have been over before they started.
I have to admit that when I saw District 9 for the first time, I was mostly satisfied with it. It wasn’t until I saw a then-prominent internet celebrity completely dismantle the film that I began to change my opinion. At first, I was with the audience and dismissed his claims as nonsense. However, the longer I entertained his thoughts, the more I began seeing things from his perspective. I now consider it one of the worst films to have ever received that level of critical acclaim. Although I would later see films considered classics that I didn’t particularly care for, in every single one of those cases, I could at least understand why they garnered their followings. If nothing else, I was, and still am, able to appreciate their positive aspects enough to the extent that I would never condemn them completely. I found I cannot do the same with District 9, for I believe it to be outright bad. With an approach lacking in any and all notions of tact, empathy, or charisma, District 9 is an example of a film that actively sabotages the few things it does well.
I also feel that District 9 was, at the end of the day, inadvertently helped by the circumstances surrounding its release. Speaking from experience, I can say that 2009 was a dismal year for summer blockbusters. That season would vastly improve in terms of quality releases in the 2010s, but in 2009, it was still subject to the stigma it developed in the nineties. During that time, studios were often more interested in showing off their newly developed special effects as opposed to actually telling a story. This was evidenced when the dire Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen spent the entire summer of 2009 dominating the box office. I can believe that in the wake of its overwhelming success, even something as problematic as District 9 looked like a masterpiece by comparison. Having said that, I steadfastly believe merely being better than the worst doesn’t automatically make a work good, and District 9 is no exception.
At the end of the day, I find myself unable to recommend District 9 in any capacity. With its utter contempt for humanity and unbelievable premise, this film could be seen as a precursor to the general attitude of science fiction in the 2010s. In that regard, one could consider District 9 ahead of its time, but I don’t believe it to be an accomplishment worth celebrating. Part of what made the 2010s such a weak decade for science fiction is that they were sold more on the messages of their creators than on plots or characters, and I see many of the same aspects in District 9. Therefore, while it’s lauded as a piece of thought-provoking science fiction, I feel the reception of District 9 instead demonstrates the detrimental effects of confirmation bias when applied to any kind of professional criticism.
Final Score: 3/10