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District 9 (2009): Review

In theory, sci-fi films interest me. I think the idea that writers and filmmakers being able to tackle real world issues and offer social commentary under the guise of other planets and aliens is very interesting. What this allows is audiences being able to step outside of the real world and see how ridiculous and oppressive humanity can be. Like I said, in theory, this works. How this is translated onto the screen is an entirely different matter.

Where sci-fi often fails for me is how often it devolves into a CGI mess with nothing of note to offer an audience outside a couple of well-choreographed action scenes. Just setting something in space and putting aliens in a film is not usually enough to draw me in, which is why I was sceptical of District 9 (2009). I didn't know a lot about it when I decided to watch it which is how I believe films should be watched. It meant I had no expectations and went in expecting the bare minimum of storytelling.

Whilst I would been fine with a mediocre alien killing fest, I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought. However, District 9 surprised me in terms of its commentary and film form, choosing to film large segments of the film like a documentary or a news broadcast. The more set in reality it felt, the more I enjoyed the story.

Poster of the film 'District 9', showing a large spaceship hovering over a city and a sign in the foreground that reads 'No Humans Allowed' inside what looks like a slum. The text on the poster reads Peter Jackson presents a film by Neil Blomkamp. The tagline reads you are not welcome here.
Source: IMDb
The film follows Wikus van de Merwe, a bureaucrat set with the task of evicting the alien inhabitants that have been living in the slums called 'District 9'. During an encounter with an alien family, he becomes infected with alien fluid and subsequently becomes ostracised from his community. Looking for a cure, he forms an alliance with Christopher Johnson, an alien attempting to get home. 

A very big factor that contributed to my enjoyment of this film was the fact that is wasn't set in America. The amount of films in general that have been set in an American city where very American things happen can feel tedious and in general portrays westernised version of reality. Other cultures don't seem to have nearly as much screen time. The choice to set this film in South Africa was not only refreshing, but also offered a commentary on the past of this area of the world, alluding  the treatment of black people during apartheid as well as the current refugee crisis and the treatment of immigrants in general.

The use of the slums that the non-human creatures inhabit emphasises to the audience how depriving and alienating poverty can be. In contrast to this, the alien's participation in human activities, such as wearing clothes and eating human-like food conveys how they have had to intergrate themselves within society whilst simultaneously being outcast from it. The demonisation of the creatures as outsiders is furthered through the intercut sections of news reports and talking head interviews both blaming and villifying them for the conditions they live and the behaviours they exhibit, often comparing them to animals. 

The character of Wikus is one that is transitional only after the morbid events of being infected and subsequently tested on by the company he previously worked for. Before this, he shown to be a bumbling oaf who seems to be blindly following orders even it means killing the aliens in the process. Like the media and most of humanity, he doesn't see the aliens as equivalent to humans - he views them as an eye sore that needs to be moved somewhere where they don't have to be worried about. So when Wikus is infected, the shock of being immediately demonised by everyone around him, including his wife, truly evidences the lack of empathy and humanity he had before, proving how blinded and distanced he had become to the original goal of rescuing and rehabilitating the creatures.

Handheld, shaky camerawork serves to place the audience within the setting of the film and a documentary style provides realism to otherwise fantastical and unbelievable circumstances. In my opinon, this film aims to naturalise the world that has been created as much as possible, which is most emphasised through the use of non-professional actors. I felt like many of the human characters were just that - human. They weren't playing a role, they were who they are. For a film attempting to emulate a reaction from the audience which would be similar to that of a documentary, I think this film succeeded, particularly in terms of contextualising the prawns within a recognisable society such as the one we live in

Now for my critique. There wasn't a lot I didn't like about the film but there were some things that nagged at me whilst I was watching. As I said earlier, sci-fi films sometimes devolve into a series of action sequences which did happen a few times in the film. Not a problem for me but when your film is nearly two hours long, I don't believe they needed nearly as much screen time as the main conflict of the film which was getting the aliens back home. Another minor problem I had was the CGI. In most of the film, it wasn't a huge stand out. The spaceship blended in well with the city scape and most of the aliens looked as if they were just part of the environment. Where it failed for me was during some the close-up shots, particularly of Christopher Johnson, where it was very clear that the creatures had been digitally engineered into the scene. The verisimilitude was lost at moments, which was a shame because close-ups such as this would serve to humanise the aliens in an ironic contrast to the humans. 

Obviously what I am not saying is that from a technological standpoint this film was a failure. CGI was intergral for this film in order to make the creatures on the scale that they did. I thought that this film was thought-provoking and emotional whilst still staying true to the tropes sci-fi fans enjoy. I often shy away from anything involving aliens because of how disconnected from reality it can feel, however I must say that in terms of social commentary and in terms of experimental filmmaking, District 9 has converted me.