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District 9: Mark's take

01/09/2009. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy District 9 in the USA - or Buy District 9 in the UK

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Peter Jackson produced this film directed by Neill Blomkamp. When a spaceship brings a large load of alien refugees to South Africa, racism becomes three-sided. A government functionary charged with relocating the refugee camp finds himself more personally involved in the conflict than he expected. Blomkamp's and Terri Tatchell's script asks us to dissect racism and understand what exactly the rules are. While the film is asking difficult questions, it is a first rank piece of science fiction. When it starts to answer those questions in the easiest and most predictable ways the film becomes just another loud summer action film.

Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Query: Some large number of alien refugees shows up on Earth emaciated and needy. Does society have an obligation to care for the aliens? Does society have an obligation to release them freely into the world? Is there still an obligation if they have customs that we consider anti-social? Is it worse to kill and eat aliens than to kill and eat earth animals? Is our first responsibility to creatures from Earth or to creatures with intelligence?

District 9 is an ugly, violent, painful, and intelligent film. It delves into racism (or is it species-ism?) in ways that could never be examined without science fiction. For as long as the film is asking questions the film is intelligent. Sadly, the film runs out of intelligent questions about at the halfway point and reverts to being ugly, violent, painful, and sentimental. That makes for a long second half.



A large alien mother-ship arrives on Earth and parks itself in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa. Eventually humans come knocking and discover that Earth's first contact with aliens is with a ship full of immigrants who need help. The good-hearted human race is happy to rescue them and put them into a dirty and brutal detention camp outside Johannesburg. There the visitors get into the predictable sorts of poverty and crime.

The story really starts as a documentary of the aliens' resettlement to a new camp further isolated from Earth people. Wikus Van Der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) is in charge of moving the now nearly two million aliens (given the insulting name "prawns") to a more remote camp. At the same time he is rationalizing the action of Multi-National United for the cameras of a documentary crew. Not surprisingly things start to go wrong. With whites, blacks, and prawns there is a triangle of racism underlying the film. In addition there is a dehumanized government pulling the strings and conflicting with more humane players. Wikus has to decide which side has his loyalty. Sadly, by this point in the film his decision is predictable.

Blomkamp does what he can to make the film seem stark and real. He subdues the color, which makes the film look a lot like Children Of Men. He uses a shaky hand-held camera to follow the action. Often the action regresses into chaos that the camera with sharp, loud bangs. There is some of the feel of an unsubtle Peter Watkins pseudo-documentary. Even after the plot starts to twist, there is a semi-documentary style that follows the action with inserts of people commenting on the action as if it took place in the past. The story follows what is in retrospect a very familiar arc.

Though District 9 is bleak nearly all the way through, Blomkamp and Tatchell manage some touches of black humor. The favorite alien food is human cat food in a can labeled "Puddy." Well there is no accounting for alien taste. There are little allusions to other films like The Thing From Another World and Independence Day. The entire situation is reminiscent of Alien Nation or perhaps the "Outer Limits" episode "The Zanti Misfits".

The first half of the film is first-rate intelligent science fiction. By the midpoint, however, the film goes to autopilot and delivers a rather standard action film that is kind-hearted but uninteresting. The combination of maudlin and violent is not a good one. My recommendation: skip the second half, but watch the first half twice. I rate District 9 a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper

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