Most sci-fi movies about first contact with aliens generally depict humans as either the heroes or victims – or both. First contact can be a chance for peoples of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds to make common cause against alien invaders (Independence Day) or a moment that inspires us to reach for the stars (Star Trek: First Contact).
District 9, by contrast, takes a different approach. This is a first contact from hell. A group of alien refugees is corralled into African slums by the private military company Multinational United. The slums become pits of violence, prostitution, and depravity. The film’s approach to humanity – the mix of opportunism and sheer indifference – strikes me as depressingly realistic. I know it sounds crazy, but at times I though to myself: yeah, I could see this happening. Humanity’s reaction is, well, human.
Part of District 9‘s success comes from the “fake documentary” manner in which it was filmed. Television crews accompany the hapless Wilkus (Sharlto Copley), a MNU bureaucrat, as he evicts the aliens from their shacks. The movie also interviews “experts” about alien biology and sociology, quickly bringing audiences up to speed on the situation. At first, I was skeptical about this technique, but Blomkamp uses it quite effectively to blur the distinction between reality and film.
Midway through the film, District 9 shifts into action mode. Sometimes the action and violence become a bit much, but it’s well choreographed and exciting. More importantly, the film never loses sight of the characters. Even during the most intense battles, when other action movies would have simply focused on the big explosions, District 9 finds compelling moments in which characters must make tough choices.
For a $30 million budget film, the special effects are superb. I love the design of the aliens. These aren’t simply giant blue people (a la Avatar). The “prawns,” as they’re called by racist humans, look creepy enough to make viewers sympathize with the government’s decision to quarantine them. However, the aliens’ faces can also convey emotions and intelligence, which eventually allows them to earn viewers’ sympathy.
District 9 is easily one of the most original films I’ve seen in the 2000s. It has a great balance between action, special effects, and social commentary. It has rightly earned Blomkamp a place amongst the big leagues of sci-fi directors.