“You are not welcome here.”
Science fiction remains a popular genre in the entertainment business, but seldom are the sci-fi films that left their mark in film history. District 9 is a film that rightfully earns its place among some of the greatest sci-fi epics and, ten years after its release, is considered one of the best genre films released during the 2000s. So, why is a foreign made movie about aliens so good? Is it still relevant today? What separates it from other genre related material? And what about the long-rumored sequel?
District 9 is a marvelous film to say the least, though perhaps the better term is underrated. Shot in South Africa, co-writer and director Neill Blomkamp created a unique sci-fi tale that hits on many themes that leave you both breathless and disturbed when the film concludes. This isn’t one of those movies where the aliens look pretty or the audience is taken to a world that brightens our eyes with beautiful colors. District 9 is ugly, grim and brutal; yet its allegorical concepts are intelligent, creative and, despite drawing some inspiration from other films, original in its storytelling.
The movie begins in a found-footage documentary style that features news footage, interviews and even videos from surveillance cameras. While some viewers didn’t like this approach, I appreciate how it throws us right into the story rather than settle on a character who reflects back on how everything started. The plot involves a massive alien ship arriving over the South African city of Johannesburg but, rather than land, remains hovering over the city. No aliens leave the ship and the people in the city, as well as all over the world, are curious considering this is “first contact.”
With mounting international pressure the government cuts their way into the ship and, instead of finding wonder, they discover something horrific. There are over one million alien creatures onboard who are malnourished, confused and without any leader. They are ferried off the ship and placed into a housing development which turns out to be a slum in short time. The aliens are called “prawns” by the locals, a term that refers to their daily activities. They eat garbage like a bottom feeder and live in shacks whose living conditions are no better. In fact, if you look up the word “prawn” it actually refers to a king cricket native to South Africa that greatly resembles the aliens, not to be confused with the aquatic crustacean commonly known as “shrimp.” It’s a derogatory term used by the locals that the aliens themselves don’t seem to mind. In fact, they never give themselves a name save for one important character.
Twenty years after the alien’s arrival, they remain in South Africa and continue to engage in recreational behavior that humanity deems quite destructive. After the film’s opening, we’re introduced to the Multinational United Corporation (MNU), whose job is essentially weapons manufacturing and, since they’ve found weapons, worked tirelessly to try to use them. Turns out, however, these weapons can’t be activated unless they have alien DNA.
MNU is also heading up an operation of evicting the aliens from their home in District 9 to a new facility outside of the city, where they will be far from people. Of course, it’s fenced in and will be heavily policed by the government. The MNU agents intend to go from shack to shack to give notice to the aliens and hope that the operation will be a success.
Now, I must mention the character Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley in his feature film debut), who leads this operation in the hopes that it going without incident. He’s a mild-mannered man who wants to prove himself but, much like the group he works for, perpetuates anti-alien bigotry by referring to the aliens as “prawns.” He even enjoys performing alien abortions and threatens to take a child away from his alien father. If you’ve seen this film already, or at least its trailer, then you know that something bad happens which sets off a world-shocking chain of events based on Mr. Van de Merwe’s decisions.
While District 9 is a science-fiction tale and features a good amount of action, there is a lot of subtext on its mind. First off, Neill Blomkamp was heavily inspired by South Africa’s own history of Apartheid. If you read further into the film’s production notes, you’ll find that the titular District 9 was based on a real-life housing area known as District Six that forcefully removed its non-white inhabitants. The segregation and xenophobic treatment of aliens is a social commentary attributed to the real-life horrors that the people of South Africa suffered through.
As stated before, this is a drastically different sci-fi film than Star Wars or Avatar; this movie is bold and effective in its attempts to convey social themes and motifs that aren’t pretty. One unique example is a group of Nigerians who believe that consuming the aliens will grant them their powers. This extends to the use of alien weapons, who cannot be picked up and fired unless the user has alien DNA. These people also live in District 9 with the aliens and sell them their favorite delicacy, cat food. And yes, there ARE moments where the Nigerians kill and eat the aliens, which I don’t doubt will be upsetting for some people.
Despite these grisly moments, one common complaint I’ve heard about is the alien’s appearance. According to friends and other people I interviewed prior to writing this article, the consensus was that their visual design felt unpleasant to watch and ruined the moviegoing experience. My opinion is quite different. I feel that the appearance of the aliens has little effect, as you should be paying more attention to the story itself. I believe that if you spend more time making the alien or monster look attractive or appealing then the audience will focus more on that instead of their characteristics. These aliens are unique, possessing their own language, ability to communicated with humans and even showing moments of sympathy. Their alien traits don’t separate them from the humans, but rather brings the two species closer together, especially when Wikus becomes involved.
Humanity is another big theme in this movie, which brings us to Wikus. Starting out as a slimy government worker, something happens to him which makes the character question who he is as not only a person, but as a human. Can he turn a bad situation into something positive? Can he do something good for the alien named Christopher Johnson? These two characters experience many revelations together and learn from each other in ways never thought possible. In a way, District 9 is about coming together to solve a problem without judging others on their nationality or appearances.
One great movie line comes from a local who says, “If they were from another country, we might understand, but they are not even from this planet at all.” It’s this lack of understanding, combined with a xenophobia outlook, that prevent the people of Johannesburg from even giving the aliens a chance. In the end, the people are cheering but only one person knows the quality of the aliens and his lessoned is learned.
District 9 became a success upon release. With only a $30 million-dollar budget, it went on to gross over $200 million worldwide. Critics were impressed with the film’s themes and sense of style. One thing I appreciated is the wonder of this film’s story and grimness of its surroundings. This is nothing like James Cameron’s Avatar, which was released just a few months later in December. Most of my friends preferred Avatar over District 9 but I prefer the latter’s grittiness and brutal honesty, as it felt like a more original and engaging story than Avatar.
The film was also nominated for numerous awards, including four Oscars with Best Picture being just one of them. Neill Blomkamp has stated that, while no particular film was the inspiration for District 9, some films he drew reference from included The Terminator, Robocop and Aliens. Some critics even accused the film of being a knockoff of Alien Nation, but I’d argue District 9 is far more intelligent.
Even ten years after District 9‘s release, people are still inquiring over a possible sequel, given the film’s ending. Although Blomkamp has expressed interest, there’s still no official word on its progress. He has ideas but nothing definitively concrete. Personally, I love the film’s ending and don’t think we necessarily need a sequel. Sure, Christopher Robin could return and declare war on the humans, but I think Blomkamp is a man of ideas.
Although Blomkamp’s other sci-fi entries like Elysium and Chappie weren’t as thought-provoking or powerful as District 9, he remains a terrific visionary director. The man has wonderful and unique ideas and I’d honestly rather see his Alien 5 over District 10. Sadly, Alien 5 was passed over in favor for Alien: Covenant, which was met with mixed reception by fans of the franchise. Although Alien 5 is officially cancelled, I think Blomkamp fans would be passionate about seeing it happen.
Ten years ago, we were introduced to a director who brought forth a unique sci-fi feature with imagination, original storytelling and fantastic characters worthy of a character study. From its incredible visual style to the documentary-like interviews and incredible soundtrack, District 9 is an unforgettable experience. Personally, I believe it’s one of the most unique and awe-inspiring sci-fi epics we’ve seen over the past twenty years. It may have its inspirations from other films but, by itself, there’s nothing quite like it.
District 9 isn’t just a movie, but an experience. I never got the chance to see it in theaters but, were it to be released this year, I’d be first in line. Its themes speak volume and continue to resonate today- just pick up any newspaper and see what’s happening around the world. Segregation, xenophobia and crimes against humanity are happening even in the United States and District 9 offers an allegory for how those inhumane actions dominated South Africa’s politics for decades.
About two years ago, I had a friend watch this film. Her daughter lives in South Africa with her husband and two children and lived during the apartheid. I’ll never forget what my friend said after viewing this film: “I know it’s just a movie, but it reminds me of the struggle that my daughter and her husband went through during that time. This brought back those memories.” How many sci-fi films can deliver a reaction like that?