Prawn of a New Age

A Review of DISTRICT 9:

An alien mother-ship makes a pit stop over South Africa, where its living “cargo” is dumped and then regulated to a massive slum called District 9 in Neill Blomkamp’s audacious feature film debut.  When the government decides to liquidate District 9 and move the aliens (hatefully referred to as “prawns”) to a glorified concentration camp further outside the city limits after local riots and growing concerns from the human populace, all hell breaks loose after a mid-level and bumbling bureaucrat (Sharlto Copley) is accidentally exposed to “something” that leads to…well…I don’t want to give away too much.

For whatever reason, District 9’s success has come as a surprise to some.  I had it on my radar for quite some time thanks to their ingenious on-line viral marketing campaign that tapped into our current economic crisis by creating mock websites for human and non-human educational and job hunt purposes.  Early previews highlighted the Peter Jackson brand-name attached to the film, and positive buzz sprang forth effortlessly from targeted viewings at comic book and sci-fi conventions just a few weeks before it was released to the public. 

Given the fact this is the first summer sci-fi flick in many moons that isn’t a sequel, prequel, remake or reboot and wasn’t based on a comic book or toy-line, critics and audiences have been eager to warm to it.  Hey, Hollywood…people like original ideas!  We also like a little bit of mystery…like why did this alien mother-ship stop dead over Johannesburg in the first place? 

The whole South African apartheid milieu ran the risk of becoming heavy-handed, but the bottom line is Blomkamp, even with all this subtext, delivers the old-fashioned generic goods.  This is a gory, action-packed, occasionally humorous, sometimes satirical, always entertaining flick.  Although the way Blomkamp packages his vision is refreshingly original and wildly imaginative, sci-fi is an inherently derivative genre, and there are definite shades of The Fly, Alien Nation and Starship Troopers.  And, yes, there is a faux-documentary style exercised at the onset, but Blomkamp uses the all too familiar aesthetic as a McGuffin designed to get people in the seats.  The style never defines the story (as it did in the inferior and IQ-deficient Cloverfield), it’s merely the vehicle that gives the audience an all access pass into the secrets of District 9.

One could go on and on about the film’s “message”.  For instance, why is it human beings have to see another living creature tortured before we can begin to feel sympathy for it?  Also, what the hell is up with the Nigerians?  Seriously, these Nigerians are totally out of control in this film and perpetrating far more than just email scams.  I, however, chose to focus on the “fun” aspects of the film…like the exploding heads, the “arms for cat food” trade and the random act of pig violence near the end that had me rolling.

Blomkamp has proven that it’s not the “known” factor, but the “unknown” factor that delights audiences most.  He also has shown Hollywood that a film can look like $100 million bucks and only cost $30 million.  Could the film’s success be the dawn of a new age where originality and coming in under-budget are celebrated?  Oh, hell, no!  Because just as the South African government learns in the film, sometimes the easiest thing to do is to make Districts 10, 11, and 12.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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4 comments on “Prawn of a New Age

  1. Horse Apples says:

    The ship looked a little ” Independence Dayish” too. Overall, pleased with this film. Lived up to my expectations, but I fear how they might overdo all the sequels.

    Horsie, yes…I almost wish there weren’t going to be any sequels…but it’s all too obvious. I just hope they don’t ruin the memory of this unique film like The Matrix sequels ruined the legacy of that original film. –DHS

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    The fun is indeed part of it David, but in a larger sense, the film examines man’s inhamanity to man, and therein lies its universal resonance. I think it’s a fine point you brought out there about this being one of the few films this summer that isn’t a prequel or a sequel, although your closing coda there is ominous! Ha! Although I think the message was pursuasively visualized, I’ll agree with that ‘Nigerians’ disclaimer. It took maybe 30 minutes or so for the film to take root, but after that it was powerful stuff.

    Great overview; compelling essay. I somehow missed the Greenland piece which I am going over to now.

    Sam, I think someone else pointed out over there at WitD (or maybe some other related thread on another blog) that the mockumentary stuff was broadly humorous, and that was one element that pleasantly took me by surprise and was nicely balanced by the equally surprising “resonance” you speak of in regards to more serious terms. When you mix that with good production values, solid acting, generic thrills and most importantly, a compelling subtext that requires some thought and imagination on the viewers’ and filmmakers’ part…well, you have a potential sci-fi classic on your hands. –DHS

  3. Jen says:

    Great review as always, Dave.

    I walked in not knowing what to expect since I saw the movie before your review. I love the “documentary feel” to it. I believed it was possible because of the realistic approach.

    I, too, found some of my favorite parts the pig weapon and exploding heads. Can’t wait for the sequel. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.

    Jen, oh, I’m sure it (the sequel) will “anger” us in one way or another. Or it could surprise and delight like The Dark Knight, which hardly felt like a sequel at all. –DHS

  4. best psychic says:

    I just saw this movie for the first time. Personally, I do feel that it is effective to weave elements of human rights (or any sort of ‘moral aim’) into a movie without being overly heavy handed.

    It can draw more people in to see the movie, and slowly bring things to the attention of the audience without scaring them away. Plus there’s the reward of pig weapons and exploding heads.

    ; )

    Yup, totally agree! –DHS

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