Movie Recommendation: District 9, A Sci-Fi Exploration of Racism's Universality

by: David Sirota

Wed Aug 19, 2009 at 09:15

As a sci-fi fan who loves to be frightened by dystopic movies, I've been looking forward to District 9 since I first saw the preview. Certainly, I knew that the gap between the quality of a preview and the quality of the full movie is particularly high in the sci-fi genre (it's easy to make a couple of alien shots look awesome in a 60-second preview, but it's really hard to make a full sci-fi film that doesn't devolve into predictability/stupidity). But the preview for District 9 focused on the film's political edge, and therefore made it seem particularly promising - and I'm happy to report that the full movie does not disappoint.

The plot summary is straightforward and also ingenious: Instead of following the typical War of the Worlds script which has alien invaders coming to conquer Earth, District 9 reverses it: the aliens find themselves stranded on Earth and subsequently subjugated by humans. The filmmakers create this story by setting up the alien craft as a slave ship lost at sea - basically, the ship is filled with worker drones, gets lost on some routine intergalactic journey, and ends up drifting over Johannesburg, South Africa. When, after 3 months, humans break into the craft, they find the aliens starving and weak, and decide to "save" them by relocating them to a section of Johannesburg known as District 9.

Twenty years after the ship appeared, District 9 has become your standard refugee camp - impoverished, high crime and lots of violence. The South Africans - both white and black - have ghettoized the crustacean-looking aliens into a new apartheid situation, barring them from leaving or moving around. And as the movie begins, the goal of District 9's corporate administrators (led by a guy named Wikus, whose hairstyle and moustache is clearly intended to evoke a Hitler image) is to relocate the million aliens to a  concentration camp 200 miles outside the city, because the human inhabitants of Johannesburg are fed up with them.

SPOILER ALERT: I'm not going to divulge what happens in the movie, but if you are one of those people who doesn't want to know anything about a film before seeing it, don't read on.

David Sirota :: Movie Recommendation: District 9, A Sci-Fi Exploration of Racism's Universality
This is all the setting for the real plot - Wikus's journey from 21st century Hitler rounding up aliens to defender of those very same aliens. This journey is facilitated by Wikus inadvertently spilling a chemical on himself which starts changing him from a human into an alien. When this starts happening, his own corporate bosses seize him and start conducting experiments on him. Why? Because they see a huge profit potential in being able to operate the weaponry they found inside the alien ship - weaponry that can only be used by those who are comprised of alien DNA.

The company, we discover, is less a private prison corporation looking to keep profiting off South Africa's District 9 contract than it is a business hoping to become the most powerful arms dealer in history. And Wikus, because he has accidentally discovered how to fuse human and alien DNA, is their key to unlocking the alien weaponry for human use.

Of course, they have to kill him and experiment on his body parts to figure out all that they need to figure out. And when Wikus hears this, he understandably freaks out - and escapes. The rest of the movie is his journey into hiding in District 9.

I won't offer up any more plot points out of respect for those who don't want the movie spoiled. But what I will say is that this is just a fantastic film on every level.

First and foremost, the graphics are just amazing - and not in a cheesy, glitzy kind of way. Typical alien movies like Signs or The Abyss immediately die the moment they actually show the aliens, because the aliens end up looking so fake. District 9, by contrast, shows the aliens and it works really well. It is able to achieve this by shooting scenes that are mostly real (he shot on location in a township in Soweto), and having the special effects/CGI comprise only small parts of large vistas. That obscures the CGI-ness of the special effects to the naked eye. The result is the most "real" alien movie I've ever seen.

Even more important than the visuals, though, is the plot. By setting the movie in South Africa, the refugee camp/anti-alien racism is a powerful allegory about the universality of oppression. One of the film's most powerful messages (and there are a number of messages in this movie) is that even groups that have been oppressed can themselves turn into oppressors. In the movie, South Africa's black population is just as anti-alien as its white population. In real life, we have plenty of examples of the same kind of thing. As just one of many examples, in Israel, some (but certainly not all or most) Jews - despite their own history experiencing oppression - express extremely racist views about Arabs.

I really can't recommend this movie enough - along with Moon, it's the best of the sci-fi productions this year, and probably since The Matrix came out (and that's saying a lot because like Moon, it was made on a shoe-string budget). In fact, I'm guessing that because the movie was so good and because it leaves a really compelling cliff hanger, District 9 has a real chance to be as big and as good (if not better) series than The Matrix itself.

ADDENDUM: Check out the movie's website here - and also check out its mini-sites. As I noted, District 9 was made on a very small budget for the size and scope of its plot. It therefore had to rely on a viral marketing strategy, which involved the web. As you'll see, they did some really innovative things.

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Seems to get positive reviews! (4.00 / 1)
Sure an interesting movie, judging from the reporting. And it's refreshing that there are still positive examples, since there are so many really bad B or C movies in the SF genre. A good story line that makes sense and provides food for thought is essential for this!

Thanks for talking about the visuals, too! I hate films with lots of special effects that look cheap. One of the worst examples, imho: Damnation Alley. The book by Roger Zelazny was fine, but the movie only focussed on the action elements. And the special effects were so cheap, it was hillarious (even for 1977, when Star Wars just started to have an impact). You really have to see it to believe it, it's a totally rotten tomato! So, even if there's a good adaption from a poular book, the graphics can ruin the whole experience. Good to hear that's not the case with District 9!

Thx for the recommendation, David. I guess I'm gonna see it.

two claws up (4.00 / 2)
I saw this movie too, and liked it.  It's a lot more thoughtful than your typical sci-fi movie.  Personally I wish there had been more thought (for instance, where the aliens really drones?  and if so would that still justify exploiting them?) and less shoot-em-up but I still enjoyed it.  I read one review that called Wikus a Michael "heck of a job" Brown-type character which gave me a chuckle.  And you are so right that when a special effect becomes the focus of a scene it loses some of its impact.

Yes I saw it last night! Its fantastic! This is movie making! (4.00 / 1)
As good a film as I have seen. I dare not start talking about this film as I wouldn't stop. its beautiful, brilliant, principled, cogent, informed, relevant, shockingly violent but even when the "good guys start winning" (and even that is brilliantly inverted) there is no urge to cheer, there are bad guys, and they sure look and sound like mercenaries and history.

This is worth every dime pay.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

i also really enjoyed (0.00 / 0)
this movie,
david, i saw the preview for moon, and it looked really bad and slow, it was really as good as you say

whatever you think people owe you, that is what you owe people

i find a lot of sci fi to be cheesy (4.00 / 2)
because aliens are either pure evil, or so enlightened that they might as well be angelic. i also don't like that films spend more time explaining how a technology works or how the aliens were born than telling the story.

this movie did none of those things. it doesn't get bogged down in techno babble or cliches. it's one of the most original movies I've ever seen, and the best part is that film is driven by characters and relationships that are the most authentic of any science fiction film i've seen.

i was reluctant to see it, but now i can't recommend it enough.  

A twist (4.00 / 1)
Part of the plot sounds, well familiar.  An alien slave ship crashes in the desert.  That's Alien Nation, a movie and (later) TV show from about 20 years ago.  But this has a huge twist from Alien Nation.  The Newcomers are not assimilated, they are kept in slavery.  They look less human.  Great idea.

Not even in slavery. (0.00 / 0)


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

[ Parent ]
Sequel? (0.00 / 0)
I sort of hope not... though I mentioned the same thing to my wife after we saw it.  It's so good that I kind of hope they don't ruin it with trying to expand it.  For some reason I get the impression that Blomkamp may not see this as a "franchise", but as the movie did quite well, I could obviously be wrong.  Money can be a powerful motivator...


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