One of my Creative Writing professors used to sit at the front of the class behind his stupid beard while pontificating about how science fiction could never stand up to literary fiction. It was too childish and never dealt with serious themes. Every now and then a movie like District 9 comes along, pushes my professor in the dirt and kicks him in the crotch.
District 9 is the most exciting movie to come along all Summer, and maybe all year. In the movie, an alien ship appears in the skies over Johannesburg, South Africa. What’s found inside is close to a million sick and starving aliens. The prawns, as people begin calling them, are relocated to a militarized slum called Johannesburg, South Africa. Zing! But really, after being relocated, the aliens quickly turn into second class citizens. They’re a burden on the government, and the people want them gone.
Director Neill Blomkamp — who got to direct District 9 after Peter Jackson’s big-budget Halo movie fell through — brings together archived footage along with faux interviews to weave the film’s narrative. The interviews discuss the problems faced in integrating almost a million alien refugees into the South African population. Weapons smugglers, riots, protests, Nigerian gangsters. You walk away feeling like you’ve been lied to your entire life. Alien invasions don’t look like Will Smith punching a monster in the face and yelling, “Welcome to Earth!” They look like this.
From the trailer, you get the sense that District 9 is made up completely of documentary footage. This isn’t the case. There’s an actual movie in here too, which follows Wikus Van Der Merwe, played by newcomer Sharlto Copely. He and a group of government workers are tasked with serving the aliens living in District 9 eviction notices, giving them the required 24-hour notice before they’re relocated to another government camp. This is where you see most of the movie’s action, along with one of its most obvious criticisms.
People have argued that the filmmakers tried to make the movie too many things at once, but I don’t agree. A straight-out scifi action movie might not be able to as effectively deal with the themes of apartheid that District 9 does so well. A straight-out documentary may have been too bland, and not packed the emotional punch the “film” part of the film does. District 9 is ambitious, and I think it accomplished everything it set out to.
In the end, what makes District 9 such a great film is what made Battlestar Galactica such a great TV series: science fiction in which the science fiction doesn’t eclipse the characters. Big explosions and flashy fight sequences will always be a part of it, but truly great science fiction teaches us something about ourselves, and doesn’t just throw cool special effects in our faces. District 9 has the action and the special effects, but also the drama that really brings it to the next level. It’s got everything, except for Will Smith, but I guess there’s always hope for the sequel.
One final note: Halo sucks, and it was totally worth that movie falling through to have District 9 made instead.