What’s better than a great movie? Three great movies. However, three movies usually take longer than one to watch — but as director Neill Blomkamp shows us, this is simply a guideline rather than a rule. With District 9, Blomkamp (with assistance from co-writer Terri Tatchell) has created a film that works excellently on not one but three different levels.
It’s hard to praise it as fully as it deserves without divulging significant elements of the plot, but I will do my best. The basic premise is that, at the time the film is set, over 1 million aliens — whose ship is apparently disabled — have been living on earth for two decades. For various reasons, people have objected to them, and the aliens — colloquially “prawns” — occupy a very low position in society, and are forced to live in slum-like conditions just outside the city. The film begins as fictional para-military corporation Multi-National United attempts to relocate the prawns to a more permanent and concentration camp-like area much farther away at the behest of the government.
The first movie we are given is classic sci-fi. Ever since Jonathan Swift, science fiction has acted as a medium for criticism of our world. The not-so-subtle significance of its setting in South Africa tells us this is a metaphor for racism, and the apartheid era. The film manages to send a powerful message without being overly preachy. By putting us in a position where we all find the oppressed to be, quite literally, alien, Blomkamp shows us a perspective on racism and discrimination in general we are unused to. As one quote from a South African youth in the film (which is partially shot in a documentary style) tells us, “If they were from another country, we might understand, but they’re not even from this planet.” The portrayed speciesism is dominant, and crosses all racial and economic barriers.
The second movie is that of a character drama. This is the part that is most difficult to discuss without giving away the plot, but the change in the central character Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) over the course of the the film’s 112 minutes is done excellently, and worth watching for.
The third and final movie is that of an action thriller. There are gun battles with three belligerents, laboratory raids, and of course, lots of great alien technology. The film — particularly the second half of it — is a most excellently-done thrillride. While it is this component that has received most of the criticism aimed at the picture, I feel it is not gratuitous and enhances one’s engagement in the story.
What makes District 9 so fantastic, however, is not just the fact that it works simultaneously on three levels, but the degree to which those levels are interleaved. To get these components to work together as well as Blomkamp has done is a remarkable feat, particularly for a director’s feature debut. Nothing seems jarring or incongruent, and at the conclusion, one is left not only wanting a sequel, but with a cornucopia of food for thought. District 9 is a film that should appeal to quite a broad audience, and achieves the impossible: an all-around well-done film, that is at once deep and light.
ant lives in Portland, OR, and when not busy with his work at Reed College, loves collecting and listening to records, watching quality movies, and being an administrator at This Might Be A Wiki.