Wikus Van de Merwe discovers the secrets of District 9, a slum in Johannesburg, South Africa, home to aliens who have found themselves stuck on earth, unable to get home.
Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language - MPAA
1 hr. 52 min.
August 14th, 2009 - Theatrical
December 22nd, 2009 - Home Format
Content Guide for District 9
Violence – Constant, bloody violence: kicking, fighting, severed limbs, torture. Characters use high-tech sci-fi firearms, some of which strike with such force that they cause their targets to explode. Scary medical experimentation imagery, including bloody, explicit body modifications. Anyone sensitive to violence need not apply.
Language – Especially in the second half, near constant use of the word “f—k” as well as “b—–d,” the Lord’s name in vain, and “balls.”
Sex – Discussion of prostitution in connection with human/alien interspecies sex.
Even back in 2009, the landscape of American cinema was in desperate need of a new kind of filmmaking. The Dark Knight and Iron Man had come out the previous year, giving people faith in the summer blockbusters once again. But in the realm of science-fiction, what was being done to give those who craved something fresh?
Enter District 9, the feature film debut of director Neill Blomkamp (Elysium, Chappie), a South African filmmaker who was tied to a film adaptation of the Halo video game franchise, along with Peter Jackson as producer. After the project bowed out, what the two were left with were some unfinished props, and a 2005 short film by Blomkamp–Alive In Joburg–that would become the film being reviewed here.
District 9’s story begins in 1984 with an alien race from an unknown world, who have found themselves stuck on Earth, unable to leave. Seeing as their ship stopped over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, the surrounding government decided to build the extraterrestrials a gated community–a ghetto–so that they would keep out of the surrounding city.
Our story centers around Wikus, a social worker for MNU (Multinational United), whose job is to go from shack to shack in District 9, and make sure the aliens are following the law and not doing anything out of the ordinary. You can imagine the trouble one would deal with on a regular basis considering they’re handling another species, one complete with its own culture and way of living. Wikus soon learns more than he bargained for, and what follows is a fast-paced thrill ride unlike anything the world had seen up until the film’s release in August 2009.
While the story is simple, it isn’t without its merits. Blomkamp makes it clear that the film is speaking more about real issues regarding race and xenophobia–apartheid in particular–and this really works in the film’s favor. For those not interested in the film’s commentary, District 9 also serves as a fun action ride as well. However, why would one experience good science-fiction without desiring to listen to what the film is trying to say?
All of the characters have a purpose, and the story never falls off into any tangents that aren’t necessary. It’s a focused film, able to explore not just the aliens (“prawns” as they’re called in the film, used a derogatory term), but the Johannesburg human populous as well, examining how they’ve adapted to life with aliens in their backyard.
For the most part, the cast here is good. Blomkamp opted to interview several ordinary citizens of Johannesburg, and have them act in the film’s introductory scenes, which are shot in the style of a documentary. The film’s lead, Sharlto Copely, is the best part of the film, next to his intergalactic neighbors of course. He plays Wikus, who is mild-mannered and likeable–only making his journey as the film goes along, all the more intriguing and engaging.
Jason Cope (Ella Blue) gives a wonderful performance as Christopher Johnson, the main alien in the film who develops an acquaintanceship of sorts with Wikus. Christopher and his son’s relationship is so fascinating to watch. You really care about their dilemma. The rest of the supporting cast is serviceable, doing their roles well but not standing out in any way. Sadly, the biggest complaint I have about the film is its forced villain, Colonel Koobus Venter, played by David James (The Picture of Dorian Gray). James gives a good performance, but his character’s role in the story is underutilized until the third act of the film.
Shot on Red One 4k camera systems, District 9 is a beautiful film–ironic given that it is very dirty, with lots of junk and trash filling the frames of the alien wasteland. Cinematographer Trent Opaloch (Elysium, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) does a great job at making this world feel real, and lets the natural look of Chiawelo, Soweto (an urban area in Johannesburg) speak for itself. This is even more poignant given the film’s warning of racism and the fact that District 9 was shot during a time of violent unrest in locations where it was filmed.
As with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the aliens in District 9 were achieved via motion capture technology. And with a meager budget of 30 million dollars, District 9 features outstanding CGI thanks to Weta Workshop. When watching the film it is jaw-dropping to think that it looks as good (if not better) than many big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. The aliens are convincing, and not only look real, but give real performances, going beyond their designs and becoming real characters that the audience can invest in.
Given that this is Neill Blomkamp’s feature film debut, he does a great job at tying all the pieces together in the director’s chair. None of the scenes feel out of place or too long, and the film resolves itself in a way that will make you smile, if not lean forward with a sense of curiosity. The action sequences are fast-paced and fun, featuring R-rated violence that, while bloody and certainly not for everyone, took me back to other fun sci-fi films like Robocop and Alien.
For those who’ve yet to experience this masterwork of modern science-fiction, I implore you to seek it out and gather your own opinion about the film. Not only is a good watch, but it works as a great discussion piece as well. If you’re like me and simply can’t sum up your movie-going experiences with “that was good” or “it was great,” this is a film that will make you think.
It’s still as relevant as when it was released back in 2009. The greatest science-fiction films of all time look their audience in the eye and ask them to think about their humanity. Their desire is for us to listen to what they have to say, while taking in a great story at the same time. Despite some forgettable side characters and a tacked-on villain, District 9 is a wonderful example of how to do science-fiction. It’s that great of a thrill-ride.
Blu-Ray from Amazon
+ Simple, effective story
+ Great social commentary
+ Thrilling Action
+ Above-par special effects
+ Intriguing lead characters
- Forgettable supporting characters
- Tacked-on villain
- Serviceable score