I suppose it’s an odd thing in a movie so full of heads being ripped off, bodies blown up, and fingernails peeled off, that above all else, District 9 made me think about love. But District 9 is an odd film, unexpected in all the best ways. It’s the summer’s biggest surprise.
This is a B movie of the highest order: gory, breakneck, funny/scary, and infused with political and cultural resonance. It’s the sort of 50s-sci-fi creature movie that makes portly, unkempt fanboys like producer Peter Jackson giggle with glee. Though in this case, pretty much everyone will be giggling with glee.
Made on a shoestring budget (about 1/7 the cost of Transformers 2, and at least 7 times the better film) by a team of unknown South Africans, District 9 presents a documentary-style modern allegory of race and class under the guise of an alien film. What happens when a massive alien spaceship stalls over Johannesburg and unloads about a million alien refugees who are helpless, hungry, and by all appearances benign scavengers? Are we to fear them? Or should they fear us? District 9 concludes the latter. When the ugly, bug-like alien outsiders land and become South Africa’s problem, the government quickly corrals them into a sequestered slum (“District 9”) and for the next 20 years instigates a system of controlled human/alien segregation that—you guessed it—looks awfully like apartheid. But when the villainous defense contractors MNU (Multi-National United) set out to move the aliens to a new camp (“District 10”), things begin to get a little crazy. That’s where the film picks up, and it’s a wild ride from there.
District 9 goes where few alien invasion movies have gone before: It turns the tables on humans and suggests that we—not them—might be the malevolent monsters (and indeed, most of the killers in the film end up being humans, not aliens). Cleverly derivative of alien movies past (everything from War of the Worlds to Independence Day to the not-aliens-but-pretty-much movie A.I.), this revisionist alien film asks questions about what it actually means to be “alien.” How might we empathize with the outsiders whose difference from us we find offensive and whose presence in “our world” is unwelcome and uncomfortable? Director/writer Neill Blomkamp certainly doesn’t make it easy. These aren’t cute E.T. aliens. They’re nasty-looking scavengers who eat canned cat food and speak in an ungainly click/rattle language. The humans use the derogatory term “Prawns” to describe the aliens. They’re a hard species to love.
But that’s precisely the point. How can we put aside our prejudices and love even the most unlovable, smelly, disgusting of creatures? Are we capable of that sort of unconditional love? Perhaps we can only get to that point if we make efforts to get to know the aliens in our midst, to spend some time in their shoes, in their houses, and in their skin (literally, as it happens in this film).
District 9 is a smart, challenging film that also happens to be thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. It’s brimful of political and cultural ideas, but it’s also brimful of alien/robot/zombie action, explosions, battles, and video game shenanigans that I have a feeling will strike a massive chord with the gamers in the room. It’s a fresh perspective on an old genre, and a movie that blows the doors off most of the summer blockbusters we’ve seen so far this year.