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Movie Review: District 9

'District 9': Life in alien nation
District 9
Running Time: 113 min
Release Date: 2009-08-14
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

We call someone an “alien” to tell him he's different from us – probably inferior – and will never fit into our society, whatever his intentions and characteristics may be. We usually want him out of our sight, our hair, even our country. But in demonizing him, we dehumanize ourselves.

That's the point of the thinking man's action movie “District 9.” (Yes, there's such a category, and this one's near the top of it.) And because the aliens come from across the universe instead of across the border, it's easier to despise them and more tragic when we learn what we've lost by treating them like scum.

South African director Neill Blomkamp set and shot the film around his native Johannesburg, so parallels to apartheid leap to mind. Yet the script he wrote with Terri Tatchell applies to any culture that bluntly excludes another.

It's hard to blame the Joburgers, when the first sight of the visitors is so revolting. Their ship shows up in 1989; when government officials cut it open, they find emaciated, bipedal insects who croak in a guttural tongue full of clicking noises. (It sounds a little like Xhosa, which African tribespeople spoke in “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”)

The government pens them up in District 9, surrounding them with a razor-wire fence and passing laws that discriminate against nonhumans. The criminal class, led by Nigerian gangsters, moves into the district with an eye to gathering the aliens' weapons, which are useless when operated by humans.

After 20 years, the government needs to relocate them to (concentration) camps 200 miles away. A weapons-making corporation, which has the same idea as the Nigerians on a grander scale, offers to handle the relocation and assigns a mid-level bureaucrat named Wikus (Sharlto Copley) to manage the job.

You can see some of what's coming: Wikus, who once hated the “prawns” (as the aliens are dismissively called), develops sympathy for them as he realizes their intelligence and the advanced levels of technology they've achieved. His family and co-workers are disgusted, but he decides not to follow orders.

What you won't see coming is the reason he changes his mind – and it's not pretty. Violence flares fast and often once the forced relocation begins, and it leads to a battle that might have been an outtake from “Transformers” (if “Transformers” made sense).

Blomkamp aims a trigger at many a villain: vicious mercenaries (all of whom look like shaven-headed Bruce Willis), heartlessly corrupt corporations, Pilate-like governments that wash their hands of responsibility, media who ignorantly or complicitly parrot official lies and absurdities.

But these points strike you afterward. His breakneck pacing hurls one tense sequence after another at us, most of them filmed with handheld cameras for documentary-style effect. (The early scenes have a “Blair Witch” casualness. After Wikus settles down to helping the aliens, the movie also settles down a bit visually.)

This is one of those rare films where seeming plot holes turn out not to be holes, after all. I wondered why, if South Africans speak prawn, nobody knew how smart the extraterrestrials were. Why did the Nigerians not hire them as soldiers, letting them use their own weapons against human enemies?

But that's Blomkamp's point: Once you write someone off, you're not going to listen to him. You won't trust him. You don't have to learn from him or find common ground. He's as disposable as meat, which is how many characters of both species get treated in “District 9.” That's the heart of the tragedy.

Reviews & Comments
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08/13/2009 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

Violent South African saga has a troubling message about how humans treat any outsiders.

(Full review)
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(no rating) 08/10/2009 - The Charlotte Observer - By Roger Moore, The Orlando Sentinel

The newcomers are, in a word, gross. They showed up, a million of them, on South Africa's doorstep 20 years ago. And they won't go home.

(Full review)
(no rating) Sep 12, 2009 - feargod on District 9

This movie overall was an excellent satire on how we treat each other. The aliens lived in a "slum", had little access to good food, lived in unsanitary conditions, and enjoyed little sympathy by the majority. The second theme of the movie was the morphing of the main human, into an alien. This had aspects that reminded me of the movie "THE FLY". Hard to watch at times if you have a weak stomach, but overall an excellent movie.

Aug 24, 2009 - JustinMoore on District 9
Thought Provoking Sci-Fi

Very, very good movie. Easily the most intelligent and thought provoking film of the year, or that I've ever seen for that matter. I will say from the feedback I've seen online and heard from folks - you either love it or hate it depending on your interpretation. I think it's a tremendous film and highly recommend it.

(no rating) Aug 15, 2009 - razedadon on District 9
Movie is Great

If you love graphics like i do, you'll be glued to the screen. Definetly a part 2 in the wrks.

(no rating) Aug 13, 2009 - danimal on District 9
How appropriate...

Isn't District 9 Sue Myrick's district?

(no rating) Aug 13, 2009 - GrayRider on District 9
Legal - Illegal

Legal alien fine. Illegal alien not fine.

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