DISTRICT 9, Review – You Will See This Movie.

Posted by Peter Hall - August 10th 2009 @ 1:07 am

Directed by Neill Blomkamp, 2009
Written by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell


DISTRICT 9 will end up being one of the most remembered films of 2009, as well it should be.  Not because it’s perfect, sorry to say, but because it’s a barrier breaker.  For the hardened fans of fantastic cinema, D9 will be a double-lunged breath of fresh air fired from a double-barreled shotgun of science fiction and horror.  For a new generation, D9 will be a gateway drug into older, better cinema.  And for studios, D9 will be proof positive that original ideas, particularly those of this genre, and unknown but not unqualified talents are worthy of their investment.

But here’s the catch.  Stop watching the trailers.  If a TV spot comes on, change the channel.  If you see one of those “Humans Only” print ads, don’t look at it.  You’re being lied to.  The film you may think DISTRICT 9 is is not the film you will see in theaters (and trust me, you will want to see this film in theaters).  Don’t worry, I’ll be walking on eggshells here, so feel free to continue reading why it isn’t those things and still remain unspoiled.

Neill Blomkamp’s feature debut is not a faux documentary nor is it filmed in the first person style, as the trailers make it out to be.  Nor is it about the world’s reaction to aliens who have just arrived on Earth.  DISTRICT 9 is a small, intimate story set within a fictional world in which aliens have landed 22 years ago.  That last piece of information is crucial to shaping your notion of what this movie is.  It is not a recount of what has already happened nor is it an invasion film.

Think of DISTRICT 9 as James Cameron’s ALIENS without there ever having been an ALIEN.  It’s a very narrow story set within a very specific universe familiar enough to our own to feel grounded, but unpredictable enough to feel lethal for all involved.

And that comparison may just be the most impressive thing about D9: That an effects animator-cum-feature director like Neill Blomkamp can create a film that, in a matter of twenty or so introductory minutes, bridges the need for a world-building prequel and heads straight into streamlined, gung-ho science fiction action territory.  Once he’s there, when he’s shown us the rules of the world he and co-writer Terri Tatchell have created, there’s no stopping him and his infectiously charismatic star Sharlto Copley from having a roaring, laugh-out-loud, gibbing-bodies-left-and-right, stomping-on-all-expectations kind of time.

And yet that comparison may also just be why I’m not blindly in love with D9.  I like ALIEN more than ALIENS.  I prefer to see the world built, the rules discovered instead of established; I don’t want to know the threat of the facehugger, I want to be there when the crew of the Nostromo are wondering what the hell those leathery pods are.  Which isn’t to say that DISTRICT 9 explains each of its little secrets all at once, not by a long shot.  It’s got a spacey jockey or eight of its own to hypothesize over and tons of tricks up its sleeve you won’t see coming, but it also spends no time pondering how the other 7.6 billion people on Earth are dealing with an extra-terrestrial presence.  But there’s no way I can lodge ‘they’ve been here for 22 years’ as a complaint against Blomkamp and Tatchell’s script.  There’s no questioning this is the story they wanted to tell and there’s no questioning that it’s a story I’ll be joining time and time again over the years, but because D9 is engineered on a small scale, inquisitive minds will beg for answers to questions the film never asks.

Fortunately you’ll be too busy wondering how it’s all going to end to worry about the social hierarchy of the aliens’ caste system.  That boring stuff is for the chess club, Blomkamp’s A game is for the rockstar robotics team.  It’s nerdy enough to withstand scrutiny, yet mainstream enough to be a total blast to watch.  Careful eyes will widen with joy at the sight of some of the most astounding digital work to ever come out of WETA Workshop Imagine Engine.  There are shots in DISTRICT 9 I was convinced were brilliant practical prosthetics work, but I was wrong.  The work on the humans is real-world, the work on the aliens is completely computer generated.

Though credit for fooling me more than once doesn’t belong exclusively to the wizards at WETA Imagine Engine.  Were it not for the brilliant performance of Sharlto Copley, the illusion could never stand.  He’s on fire in every scene, never once giving a hint that dialog is improvised or that he’s a first time actor.  His performance is intrinsically bonded to every aspect of the film, giving Copley and Blomkamp equal ownership over how unique of a movie this is as.

And if the world of cinema is lucky enough, in a few years time DISTRICT 9 will be looked at as the launching point of remarkable careers for those two men.  Regardless of which way the ALIEN or ALIENS scale tips for you, D9 will be remembered as a great summer film.  It doesn’t play into Hollywood paradigms.  There’s no neon sign in the script that flashes, “Pay attention: This will come back later!” nor is there a sense of safety for the two instantly memorable characters at its core.  DISTRICT 9’s is exciting in ways few movies this year have been.  It (along with MOON) is the film equivalent of an ice-cold bottle of Snapple on a sweltering summer day.  And if you don’t get that analogy, then you’ve never had a Snapple.  It’s made from some of the best stuff our genre(s) has to offer and hearing that seal pop for the first time is a divine indulgence.

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rss 19 comments
  1. J.
    August 10th, 2009 | 12:30 pm | #1
  2. August 11th, 2009 | 12:46 pm | #2

    Thanks J. When multiple effects companies work on the same movie, it’s hard for the general audience to know who gets what credit.

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  4. August 14th, 2009 | 7:56 pm | #4

    There is no doubt in my mind that this will be one of the best films of 2009. It is definetly one that will be remembered and one that a sequal will be highly saught after.

  5. TJ
    August 23rd, 2009 | 3:29 am | #5

    it’s definitely a keeper. i’ve tried numerous times to convince friends into seeing it after they state “eh, it doesn’t look like my type of movie.” it’s sci-fi, but it’s not. it’s action, but it’s not. the story is so much deeper than the aesthetics portrayed in the commercials/trailers. i have tried to relay that this is about societal ideals, heartfelt struggles, and human nature. D9’s ability to transcend these superficial barriers makes it a great movie.

    if only people would get off their high horse and see it :-\ walking out the theater, 3 moronic HS’ers said, “that movie had no plot.” i about shit my vagina.

  6. judasX7
    August 23rd, 2009 | 8:50 pm | #6

    D-9: xenophobia, segregation, addiction, compassion, friendship, loyalty, love. Those are the themes addressed by this film and, amazingly, with great success on every count. It’s no bug hunt that’s for sure, the minute “slice of life” we are shown is integral to the telling of the story. Last 22 years: irrelevant. Like the finest films and books of the sci-fi genre–it ain’t about science. It’s about us, our fears, our dreams, our lives. What it’s like to be “human”. And vulnerable and heroic and…
    I would recommend this film to anyone that has a couple of neurons to rub together. I’ve thought about a lot of things since I walked back into the daylight after seeing this movie: Kafka’s “Metamorohosis”, Gauntanamo, the “four noble truths”, etc. Normally, that just don’t happen; this time it did, and that makes me smile.

  7. Matt Wells
    August 23rd, 2009 | 8:53 pm | #7

    Goddammit, I refuse to read your review so I don’t want any expectations and when I sit down to write a review for Facebook (because people want me to even though I totally link the shit out of HND) and after I write it, I read yours only to find out you said it everything I said…and said it better…and was a lot more professional due to containing a lot less complaints about the large lack of breasts…

    Time to re-write…

  8. Chris
    August 24th, 2009 | 9:03 pm | #8

    Well I saw it and I was not impressed. The CGI was good, but the plot was predictable, the characters shallow, obvious, and uninteresting. This movie is based on a trope which is so completely tired and worn out in sci-fi literature and film that making another movie based on it laughable.

    Honestly I really did love the unique CGI weapon effects though.

  9. Christopher Johnson
    August 26th, 2009 | 2:01 pm | #9

    Just saw this movie last night. To be honest I’m a little taken back by all the big praise it’s getting from well known critics. I think the best description I’ve heard was that the film was more of a space opera rather than a deep thought provoking science fiction film. Her are a few things I’m slightly confused about 1. why is an alien named Christopher Johnson. 2. The black liquid spray changes the main character’s DNA also it provides fuel for the space ship? 3. The Dialogue was a bit hoaky at times especially with the aliens. 4. Stop making aliens with horse legs and little Tyrannosaurus pincer arms. Star Wars, War of the Worlds, just to name a few. 5. The main character flip flops on his empathy towards the aliens, takes a flame thrower to a whole house full of alien eggs. Suddenly feels empathetic and can’t pull the trigger when comes time to execute one. 5.Ok I get it South africa + discrimination = apartheid. It’s not that brilliant of an equation and certainly doesn’t deserve the right to be called a brilliant social commentary. It was unnecessarily grotesque at times and I think it actually painted a more disturbing picture of Nigerians.
    Eating the Aliens? prostitution with Aliens? What the f—

    critics

  10. August 26th, 2009 | 2:41 pm | #10

    I’ll bite. 1. The name was obviously given to the alien by humans, much like slaves were given names by their masters in the U.S. 2. Yes. Nuclear power can melt you but it also powers shit. Who is to say what alien fuel does? 3. Dialogue was fine IMO. 4. Personal preference. 5. It can be argued that destroying inanimate-looking eggs is much less disturbing that shooting an innocent and confused adult alien. 5.(part 2) The “message” is clearly obvious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective.

  11. adam charles
    August 26th, 2009 | 11:00 pm | #11

    I think the conclusion to draw in regards to #2 (black liquid turning a human into a ‘prawn’ as well as fueling the ship) is that their technology is directly related to their biology. Their weaponry doesn’t work for anyone, or thing, but them so it isn’t far-fetched to think that whatever it is that fuels their ship contains something that’s inherent to their species. It’s also, perhaps, a direct purpose of the liquid to transform another species into one of them to make stuff operable in case one of them is unable to do it. Sort of a fail-safe if a ‘prawn’ is physically incapable of operating the ship and needs help from another species.

    In any case, it appears that the transformation was of no surprise to ‘Christopher Johnson’ as he knew how to cure it. So, there’s probably an actual reason for the liquid turning other things into a ‘prawn’ even if it isn’t made aware to the audience.

    It kind of makes you wonder if they are their own species. If the liquid can turn other species into them whose to say that the ‘prawns’ didn’t start as something else and were changed into what they are by the liquid.

  12. Edward
    August 29th, 2009 | 10:54 pm | #12

    I’m going to agree with post #11. It is obvious that their technology is biology based… brilliant idea in the film.

    This film is great I would say. Not because its deep, or the message it sends with parallels to “District 6″ <— google it. Really because its different and thought provoking. It's dark and sometimes amusing scenes are fresh for this type of film.

    If you are expecting big explosions and huge fight scenes this movie is probably not for you, although there are some and really good ones. The story follows one main character and explains how his relationship with himself, family and ultimately the alien "Christopher Johnson" who's name we can assume was given to him by the MNU collide in a very disturbing but entertaining manner. This film is done very well and I recommend you stop reading these comments and go see the movie.

  13. BambooPanda13
    September 3rd, 2009 | 12:02 pm | #13

    I think some people may be judging it too negatively because it wasn’t what they expected. In my opinion, and with this movie, something unexpected is a good thing. It was definitely not what I thought it was going to be, which was good because I thought it was another “aliens visit earth” type movie. This was much better. Some of the gripes people had, why do aliens have human names? Because they’ve been living there twenty years and the government wants to keep track of them, and yes to the person who said like a name given to them like slaves. It could also be a part of their trying to assimilate. Some immigrants sometimes change their names to more American sounding names. And the person who said that it makes sense that the fuel can change DNA and power the ship because their technology is biology based is right in my opinion. That makes the most sense. I liked the idea that the liquid can also be used to change other species into a prawn if they need help with something, and the question that maybe prawns were actually some other species or a mix of different species who got turned into prawns. Them being there for 22 years answers some of the simple questions people have. I mean, some of them even wore articles of clothing. And yes, lighting on fire a bunch of prawn eggs probably wouldn’t feel as disturbing as shooting a full grown one. I thought it was disturbing that they just lit their babies on fire like that, but I’m sure that is why it was in the film. Yes, the main character flip flops his views on prawns. If you were turning into another species or whatever and had no where else to turn, what other option would you have? And at first, even when he was with Christopher he wasn’t exactly nice. Not until a little later when the government was attacking and he went in to save Christopher, whether for his own gain (Christopher said he could change him back), or whether he really felt for him. I thought this was a good movie with a good message. We probably would treat aliens this way. Instead of trying to understand them or assimilate them into our culture we would just move them as far away as possible. Out of sight, out of mind. Which is why I don’t blame them when they did do anything violent. Who wants to be forced to live in a dirty shanty town like that? It looked worse than a ghetto. I thought it was funny that they really loved cat food. Also, they always had to opportunity to use their weapons against humans, and they never did. They traded them for cat food. They didn’t want to hurt the humans, or eat them, they just wanted to go home. And I’m sure if the humans would have been kinder and tried to do more for them, they could have learned so much. And I bet the aliens would have been more willing to share their technology while they tried to search for more of the substance. I don’t understand why the humans, if they disliked them so much, wouldn’t be doing all they could to try and help them leave. That doesn’t make too much sense. If they would have gotten together with some scientists, maybe they could have figured out what the black stuff was earlier on, and then rounded up everthing that contained that material, or made more, and they could have blasted off long ago.

  14. September 8th, 2009 | 9:26 am | #14

    Great review. Loved the movie watched it in theaters. The plot was intense and the characters were well formed. D-9 was a really good movie overall.

  15. SouthAfrican
    September 20th, 2009 | 2:49 pm | #15

    “#1. why is an alien named Christopher Johnson.”

    White South Africans just couldn’t pronounce black SA’s names, so they gave themselves ‘easier’ names. (mostly from the bible: John, Lucas etc..,)

    #5 Yes, definitely apartheid references, but even more so taken from the xenophobia explosion last year because of the Zimbabwean immigrants streaming into SA.

  16. Willem
    November 2nd, 2009 | 4:06 am | #16

    D9 is actually not a sci-fi movie at all. It is a satire and social commentary in sci-fi disquise. It is also not a commentary on the Apartheid era, though there is some stylistic reference to it. It is, as SouthAfrican stated above, about the xenophobia surrounding the Zimbabwean immigrants/refugees. But it also is about the betrayal, alienation and abandonment of the poor in SA by both the ANC goevernment, the rich as well as the middle classes in general. Schack dwellers in SA are made to feel that they live in an alternative universe.

    See…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abahlali_baseMjondolo

    …and…

    http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2008/06/xenophobia_in_south_africa.html

    …for insight into the South African social realities that this movie is based on.

  17. Matlhodi
    November 11th, 2009 | 4:32 am | #17

    Heya.
    Hey guys. I had to watch the movie because I am doing a movie review about it in my exam this friday for my Features and Review -Advance Reporting subject and I was not really quite sure what the hack I was going to write about it.
    Sure i knew it was a documentary like movie, btu I tend to get too emotionally taken away by a movie and find my self speechless, but with this websites help, I’m sure I’ll come up with a well structured review. Great movie though -totally awesome what SA’s movie industry is coming-up with.

  18. November 11th, 2009 | 8:02 am | #18

    If you are looking to just copy Peter’s review…I can’t say I blame you.

  19. Hil
    May 5th, 2010 | 5:20 am | #19

    Great review of a totally awesome movie. Almost a year has gone by and, although I have seen many other movies (some good, some not so good) I keep coming back to “District 9″! I had such an emotional connection with the characters, brilliant story … On the other hand, my partner’s thoughts were: “Well, it was OK I suppose …” Did we even see the same movie? Strange, that. Anyway; there have been arguments against it, but I really do hope there will be a sequel! I have been giving it a lot of thought – what will happen in 3 (No – 2) years time when Christopher Johnson & small son Oliver return …?

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