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‘District 9’ (2009): Social Realism Hits Sci-Fi Action Cinema


Directed by: Neill Blomkamp || Produced by: Carolynne Cunningham

Screenplay by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell || Starring: Sharlto Copley, David James, Jason Cope, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Louis Minaar, Kenneth Nkosi, Nick Boraine, William Allen Young

Music by: Clinton Shorter || Cinematography: Trent Opaloch || Edited by: Julian Clarke || Country: South Africa, United States, New Zealand || Language: English

Running Time: 112 minutes

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a modern science-fiction classic and arguably the best sci-fi film released this millennium. The Canadian-South African filmmaker melds socioeconomic xenophobia with extraterrestrial fiction and covers his unique, hybridized premise with an action-packed, gruesome dressing. If we put the film’s subject-matter in perspective, there is little in District 9 (D9) that hasn’t been examined countless times before in the science-fiction genre alone, particularly the conceptual framework of melding sci-fi action scenarios with analyses of humanity’s inherent fear of racial/ethnic/religious/cultural “others.” What makes D9 special is not its wholly unique subject-matter, but rather its approach to filming that particular subject-matter.

District 9

Sharlto Copley (center left) confronts an alien resident in the quarantined slums of District 9, threatening eviction to another concentration camp early in the movie.

The greatest thing about D9’s story and characters is that the film doesn’t reduce any of them, regardless of which side of the cultural conflict they reside, to a cultural stereotype or one-dimensional caricature. There are evil actions taken in this story — very evil ones — as well as inspiring, satisfying heroics, but that’s where the predictable plot-developments end. The main players are interesting and feel real because they’re complex characters that have depth to them. Both the human and alien casts have individuals who are ruthless, compassionate, intelligent, or simple-minded. All are spread out over a colorful, interchanging canvas of sociopolitical turmoil that threatens to engulf them in violent conflict.

To dismiss D9’s thematic analysis as a one-to-one political allegory is to grossly oversimplify Blomkamp’s intelligent, universally applicable screenplay. D9’s story is more a broad commentary on the consequences of global capitalism, privatization, and human rights abuses, and how all three are intricately linked. Those familiar with the shady dealings between the US government and private military corporations (PMC’s) during the recent American campaigns in the Middle-East, will recognize ominous tones in the movie’s omnipresent Multinational United (MNU), which chaperones the alien refugees into concentration camps and hunts down Sharlto Copley’s protagonist like a CIA blacklisted terrorist. Comparisons to bloody conflicts in Gaza and apartheid in Blomkamp’s own South Africa are further comparable. Blomkamp’s conclusion on the world we now live in is that globalized human culture and privatized industry don’t always lead to progress, and in many cases lead to humanitarian crises.

From a technical standpoint, D9 equals its potent, multilayered script with a feature-length directorial debut by Blomkamp that is as impressive as any first-time directing job in the past twenty years. D9 combines the look and feel of a modern first-person shooter videogame with the tenacity of the best of cinematic science-fiction. D9 is a visceral, intense shoot-’em-up feature that uses well-placed point-of-view (POV) shots with documentary-style camerawork to create a brutal, intimate action-adventure. Blomkamp plays with sci-fi toys and tropes like alien assault weapons, gravity guns, lightning bolt-bullets that make targets explode, and an exoskeleton mech-suit that hearken back to biopunk sci-fi aesthetics of old. The action set-pieces are bloody, messy affairs that threaten to overwhelm the viewer if not for Blomkamp’s ability frame them in such a way that they remain coherent and fluid.

The action feels like a healthy mix of Aliens (1986), Starship Troopers (1997), and a plethora of classic first-person shooters, most notably the Half-Life (1998, 2004) and Halo (2001, 2004, 2007) games. The intensity and sheer excitement of the action sequences are impressive, and Blomkamp seems to revels in the film’s hardcore, R-rated gore. Interchanging so many digital and practical FX with such fluency, Blomkamp and mentor Peter Jackson’s brilliant control of the extraterrestrial chaos continually one-ups itself until the immaculate finale.

District 9 lightning gun

Sharlto Copley (right) fires an alien weapon with “explosive” consequences at an unfortunate enemy assailant.

As far as I’m concerned, Blomkamp’s freshmen feature is the definitive modern science-fiction film. It is the best, most creative sci-fi movie since the Wachowski’s Matrix (1999); both films took familiar material and made them entirely new, and thus became original films in their own right. Like the Matrix, D9 is not a perfect experience — namely, it has too many characters avoiding executions at gunpoint — but top to bottom, the movie is a potent, mature project that doesn’t have to convince you to take it seriously. It gets down and dirty in the South African mud, revels in the slums of humanity’s worst colors, and, like its protagonist, makes something powerful and badass out of something scrawny and built upon a modest budget. Combined with its hardnosed, complex story and characters, District 9 is as smart and gritty as they come.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Blomkamp writes a special story far beyond the ambitious but simplistic Elysium that was his sophomore outing. The man takes controversial, volatile subject-matter and uses its universal applicability to speak to cultures the world over. Its characters are not cliches, but painfully human, even those that are initially alien, and their empathetic nature is unforgettable. The action-direction and idiosyncratic cinema verite aesthetics go a long way toward cementing the film’s unique tone and identity. The shootouts are unparalleled in recent memory and are some of the best arguments against PG-13 comic book-violence in the modern era. Bodies explode and bullets fly gloriously to the blood-encrusted, violent end.

However… the finale is filled with incredulous near-execution sequences. I have a hard time believing no good guy got shot.


? You think I’m fookin’ scared of you?!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


26 thoughts on “‘District 9’ (2009): Social Realism Hits Sci-Fi Action Cinema

  1. A remarkable film. I read once that science-fiction reflects societies concerns and fears, and District 9 seems to pick up on the displaced minorities issue that sems to be found everywhere from the middle east, to economic migration in Europe and the fevala-like sprawls from South America to south Asia. Everywhere they exist they’re feared.

    Reading your article and the mention of Avatar I wondered why, the bigger the movie the bigger the lump hammer used to pound the film’s ‘message’ into us?

    Posted by theopeningsentence | August 15, 2014, 4:27 am
    • That’s a good question. James Cameron has written some extraordinary screenplays over his career (not just the Alien and Terminator films, but also True Lies and Abyss), so he definitely has the ability stored away inside him somewhere. My guess is that Cameron just really wanted to phone it in with Avatar’s story (even more than he did with the relatively lazy script for Titanic) and focus on the cross-cultural romantic cliches amidst crisis and special effects that made Titanic such a commercial success. Both he and his studio execs know what brings in massive numbers of moviegoers and what tugs at most people’s heartstrings — romance amidst tragedy and bombastic SFX. Cameron has a huge, ever-expanding ego (that much has never changed about him) and nowadays he just wants to brag and show off with his computer and show how much money he can make with an original IP. He damn knew his screenplay was mediocre at best, but he and the other powers that be didn’t care because Cameron knew how to seduce the world for $2 billion worth of revenue. I gotta hand it to him — he did an outstanding job in that regard.

      So in short, Avatar stuck with a preachy, heavy-handed package of the same general message that Blomkamp’s D9 did, but unlike Blomkamp, Cameron didn’t really care about the artistic merit or depth of his characters and story. He just chose to put all his energy into the CGI and further asserting himself as “King of the World AND the Box Office”. And wallah, now he made $2 billion! 😀

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | August 15, 2014, 2:51 pm
  2. Great review. Love Copley in this film, but he was disappointing in Oldboy and Maleficent. Felt like Elysium also failed to rise to the occasion.

    Posted by adamlaredo | August 15, 2014, 8:20 pm
    • Thanks for the read! 😀 I loved Copley in both this and Elysium, but I agree the latter did not live up to the expectations set by D9. I haven’t seen him in anything else, though, but I am glad he’s getting more offers due to this film’s success.

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | September 13, 2014, 9:11 pm


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