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District 9: Thumbs Down

Editor's note: Since District 9 is one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the summer, we thought it only made sense to bring you two reviews. Check out Brett McCracken's review here—his take is slightly different than Luke's.

Months ago in Los Angeles, bench advertisements appeared near bus stops, with intimidating alien silhouettes circled and crossed out in red, stating “Humans Only” or “Report all Aliens.” (Hollywood likes to advertise to itself.) Our progressive intuitions might tell us that District 9 is an important movie. Based on his love of science fiction and experiences growing up in Jo'burg, South Africa, writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s first feature is an attempt to be something like Cronenberg’s The Flyand the Alien franchise post-Ridley Scott, in a context of social justice.


Unfortunately, the expectations laid by the apartheid marketing angle reveal a flair for exploitation, because the director seems to be more comfortable with weapons and special effects than any social or moral issue … like Starship Troopers. Or, like the video-game “Halo,” the movie version of which Blomkamp was supposed to direct before it got postponed.   

The apartheid elements are a backdrop, and the frenetic, video-game pace races over the multiple logic problems in the story. The documentary-styled montage of interview and news reporting sets the stage efficiently, but also keeps us distant from both the humans and the aliens, who are pejoratively named “prawns.” Their mother ship hovers over the slum, a mystery to humans and seemingly to the aliens themselves. More importantly for the humans, the aliens possess mysterious weapons which only seem to work in alien hands. The villain in the story is the weapons-research corporation MNU (Multi-National United), who is also charged with moving the slum 200 kilometers away from Jo’burg.

Enter MNU’s corporate lackey, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who is chosen to get “signatures” on 24-hour “eviction notices” from the aliens who have been living in squalor for the past two decades. The jittery and excitable Wikus rises to the challenge of this very meaningless and dangerous task (his father-in-law runs MNU). He knows his factoids about the aliens, but he also impulsively delights in their exploitation and humiliation, as long as it stays within the laws. While investigating a shack for illegal weapons, he accidentally sprays himself with a fluid that makes him sick. Biological changes start to take place, changes that draw the attention of the weapons research team, who discover that Wikus’ special qualities make the weapons work. They decide to take him apart, literally, which he overhears on the operating table (just one of the many logic foibles), so he fights off the surgeons and escapes, a freak of nature, to District 9.    

Wikus’ time in the slum, negotiating with and learning from a smart alien, negotiating and fighting off the Nigerian gangsters and finally the MNU operatives is the best part of the story. The aliens can help Wikus return to his human state with medical technology on board the ship, but they can’t get to the mother ship without the fluid Wikus confiscated. Wikus and the smart alien—who he suddenly starts to call Christopher—prove to be good team, but Wikus’ impulsive nature takes over again and he almost ruins everything the smart alien and his son have worked so long to realize.

From an online interview by Made in Hollywood, Blomkamp says he intended the aliens to be something we feel for and feel frightened by—"like something you would not want to sit next to on a bus." But that is a severe understatement. There is nothing good, or even characterized, about this race of alien; even the sensitive folks speaking of “alien rights," collaged in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, cannot explain a single specific quality to spark the audience’s empathy for the alien; we don’t know what they are called in their own language.

Blomkamp only garners a fast and superficial impression of sympathy at their general mistreatment and slum environment. They have no specific culture, no music, no games, no social organization or hierarchy of any kind. They are entirely animalistic and jump around like apes when excited. This is the main failure of the movie—the aliens really have no outlet for their own voice in the narrative, which rings a little too much like the exploitation the narrative is trying to criticize. They are not even capable of ruling their own slum, despite their superior weapons technology: Nigerian gangsters make money selling them raw meat and bribe their weapons away with cat food. So don’t go to District 9 expecting a sci-fi thriller with any political elements or insight. Despite the highway robbery of science fiction plot devices from better movies of yore, one thing District 9 succeeds in doing well is preparing a sequel; this movie is really only half a story, with a likeable hero, human or “prawn.” 

If all you want is a new sci-fi freakshow shoot-‘em-up in a different city, you could do worse. District 9 is far more interesting than 2008’s Cloverfield, which was just a nail-biting chase movie with monsters. Both movies are B-movies with A-list marketing. Maybe that’s all it takes to inspire the critical “acclaim” it has already received.



Kirsten W reviewed…

The reason that you didn't get to know more of the aliens, their culture or anything like that is because it made them more of a blank slate for you to imagine what it could be like on your own. It also helps us understand and empathize with the aliens more, because hey.. it could be humans. There's no little part of our brain saying, "They act and live and rule completely different from us, so it's okay." Instead they act as many people who live in slums like that do. This was a very strong political comment, and it just happened to have aliens and fight scenes. I'm normally cool with bad reviews (not everyone likes every movie, and maybe this just wasn't the one for you) but your reasons for it being a B-movie aren't very good. I think it's top of the line and wouldn't be surprised if it got an academy award.


Ed reviewed…

Someone already pointed out one of the errors in your review- the name is what that character was assigned. It's mentioned early on. I caught that on my first viewing- if you're reviewing a film, at least one close viewing is recommended?

As for the lack of culture- I think it might be hard for them to have a culture after they've crashed on a planet and been herded into a slum.

I can't really imagine how one would NOT feel empathy watching it- the aliens ARE humanoid. Seeing them abused and executed made me, and the friends with me watching the film, wince. If it didn't make you do the same, I don't know what to say to that. I don't think that can be blamed on this film.

As for him hearing it during surgery- it seemed clear that his state was not of much concern. He was partially under, but not completely. Part of the horror of the situation was he ceased being treated as a human being as soon as his transformation began. I'll admit this movie had some leaps of logic, but few movies don't, and the ones you brought up really aren't problems once you think about it a little.

So yes, just another comment to say that this is a very bad review of a very good movie. And please, at least include a spoiler alert. It's very poor form to do what you've done here and give away most of the story.


J.B. reviewed…

No mention to the vast character arc in Wikus. Blindness to one of the greatest instances of alien humanization I've seen in almost any sci-fi flick. The shooting style is the way film is going, completely aiding this film in giving it a documentary, actually happened kind-of-feel rather than "distancing" us from the people. That is what documentary does, brings the people to us. We almost catch ourselves feeling like we are watching a home video rather than a staged action sequence. "District 9 is just a decent B movie." I'm glad I came to this review after a host of other people commented. I actually feel much better knowing that I'm not the only one giving a "thumbs down" to this B-review. Unfortunately for Relevant, this is my first review to view on this site, making me less excited about taking part in any further installments.

Luke Pals


Luke Pals reviewed…

I'm glad I could inspire so many comments with a mediocre review about a mediocre movie. I apologize profusely for any spoilers I may have caused, but like one commenter remarked, I didn't mention the character arc of Wikus...because I didn't want to spoil that part of it for a character that I liked. Don't let the "Thumbs Down" of it all taint everything written.

It seems a lot of the negativity comes from an impression that I don't appreciate what apartheid really does to people, or that I can't empathize with human-esque aliens. I just want more detail for these issues in the voice of the oppressed, and it wasn't there. And btw, there is no metaphor or subtext here in D9, really, because it's a LITERAL depiction of apartheid. I think it had a misleading marketing campaign. The aliens weren't forced to work in diamond mines, they didn't ride the bus in the back, they didn't work as maids, they didn't rebel against their oppressors in any organized way. Not only is the lack of that realism disappointing from a progressive viewpoint, it makes them BORING! But they had cool weapons....and isn't the depiction of what the movie calls "the Nigerians" a little...prejudiced? Eating alien parts, really?

But nevertheless, I do think it's better than Cloverfield, as I said, and I do look forward to RENTING the sequel, District 10.


Anonymous reviewed…

Luke Pals. It seems obvious to me that you got shafted with 'con' side of the review coin, but since you wanted to get published you thought up a few half baked ideas why you didn't like the movie, and when that ran out of steam you just told the story in big blocky paragraphs that no one could bear to read. Better luck next time.

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