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movies / August 16, 2009
By Eileen Jones

Film Review District 9

There are a couple of strokes of genius in District 9 that renew one’s hopes for the future of genre film.

One is casting Sharlto Copley, who’s not a trained actor, as protagonist Wikus van der Merwe, a dweeby South African bureaucrat who has greatness thrust upon him and doesn’t know what to do with it. Copley plays him so unheroically that he could head the cast of a South African version of The Office right now, no questions asked.

In interviews, Copley says he’s dealt with so many dweeby South African bureaucrats that, when his friend, novice director Neill Blomkamp, asked him to play Wikus in the short film Alive in Joburg, he felt he was up to the job. And with producer Peter Jackson’s blessing he stayed on for the feature.


This casting is so effective because we don’t know how to take Wikus as our protagonist in a sci-fi action film. In a cruelly accurate satire of office-dweeb life, sure, but not in a sci-fi action film. I wasn’t even certain he was our protagonist for a long time, and kept expecting him to be sidelined in the course of the plot developments. Copley plays him that way, as a weedy guy born to be sidelined who is befuddled to find himself at the center of the action once the going gets dangerous and consequential. This is terrific, creating all sorts of tension and uncertainty about what’s going to happen next. How long has it been since a genre film did this? I can’t remember, that’s how long.

Which leads us to the second stroke of genius, keeping the film set in Johannesburg. For most of the world this is a nicely undocumented setting, commercial film-wise, so again we don’t know exactly what to expect. We’re on alert for apartheid ugliness, of course, and expect that the aliens will fill in allegorically for the oppressed black population. They do, but in a nicely complex way, becoming the bottom of the totem pole of oppression with every human across the races despising them and wanting them gone. One plot twist involves Nigerian gangsters exploiting the aliens’ addiction to cat food.


There are lots of great odd details filling the early scenes, suggesting we’re not getting all the cultural references, that make for exciting film-watching. Wikus’ thick Afrikaaner accent is enough to put us on alert, our minds racing to get everything, which is exactly what the experience of a film should be. This whole dominant practice of making slow films for dummies is inexcusable.

The film’s backstory, provided in fake-documentary talking-heads style, is that an alien mothership mysteriously appeared above Johannesburg in the 1980s. That led not to an attack on us, War of the Worlds-style, but to an aggressive takeover of the ship by South Africans. Sickly aliens onboard got herded into a temporary refugee camp that evolved over the years into a crime-ridden shantytown. The film’s action starts with the new government mandate to clear out the shantytown and herd aliens into a modernized camp run by the sinister Multi-National United corporation (MNU). Wikus has been chosen as the corporate representative to go notify the aliens of their evictions. His formidable CEO father-in-law got him the job.

These are some excellent sequences, as Wikus goes from one battered shack door to the next trying to get aliens, derogatorily known as “prawns,” to sign their own eviction notices. He’s backed by nasty military muscle, and completely clueless about what’s likely to happen in such a volatile situation. He keeps turning to the camera to joke with the cameramen about the squalid aspects of “prawn” life, as the aliens mill around angrily and the tension ratchets up notch by notch. Nice!

What happens to Wikus there is not expected. Thank you, screenwriters Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell.


This is not to say the whole movie works. It loses steam halfway through, taking on a familiar narrative shape, and the last sequences are fairly straightforward action-chase-rescue-fights. The ending is terrible, a sticky-sweet final two minutes that’s like something out of Wall-E. (Curse you, Blomkamp and Tatchell, if that was your doing!) All the more sentimental or heroic scenes are iffy because the creative team seems uncomfortable with them. Their insight and inventiveness disappears as soon as they have to portray goodness, and they revert to sadly played-out conventions. For example, the lead alien Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope + CGI) is set apart from the other bipedal crustacean-looking aliens and denoted as “good” by having him wear a vest and tattered pants.

Reminds me of The Simpsons Movie, in which Homer protests the butchery of a pig in a top hat, yelling, “You can’t kill him if he’s wearing people clothes!”


Christopher Johnson is also saddled with a small alien-son with ET-like blue eyes. Many painful moments of adorability ensue.

Still, the film has enough fast, lively, shocking material early on to make it worthy of the advance buzz and favorable press.

Though not everybody’s on board. Daniel Engber of Slate argues that the film’s no good because it trots out that moldy sci-fi cliché, portraying corporations as the enemy, which we’ve already seen done in Blade Runner and Aliens and old warhorses like that. Why oh why, bright bulb Daniel Engber asks, are sci-fi films so tiresomely fixated on evil corporate overlords running our dystopian future?

What could be behind this strange fixation? What could it be? What cooooouuuuld it beeeeeeeeee?

Probably some obscure Freudian thing.


Add your own

  • 1. aleke  |  August 16th, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Corporations are GOOD! Didn’t you HEAR? Greed is Good! All Praise be to Profit!

  • 2. DocAmazing  |  August 16th, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Gee, Slate serving up fellate-the-rich idiocies and selling them as contrarianism. That’s new and interesting.

  • 3. sternenmoral  |  August 16th, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Dolan, you really give yourself away with the simpsons references

  • 4. Poor guy  |  August 17th, 2009 at 4:50 am

    “This whole dominant practice of making slow films for dummies is inexcusable”

    What do you do when they make slow movies for smart people! Thats even worse!!!

  • 5. buzz  |  August 17th, 2009 at 5:46 am

    gee, is this just a rehash of ALIEN NATION or what… I wouldn’t be surprised if it was based on a dusted off script that got shelved during the eighties for being “too contemporary”.

  • 6. V for knowledge  |  August 17th, 2009 at 6:00 am

    Damn, I was having a perfectly good afternoon when this article popped up on my phone. I was like, hey I haven’t seen a movie in a while… Maybe if eXholes think it’s good.

    AND NOT. Maybe this piece of shit is good, for a movie. To me a “good movie” is like a smart retard, there’s no such animal.

    Like, why bother with the faux documentary interviews to fill in the ridiculous backstory? Just go straight up Star Wars, fire up the John Williams like ba ba ba ba bum! ba ba ba ba, ba ba baaaaaa, ba ba ba baa, roll the scrolling text, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.. the ghetto craw dad alienz heard about cars for clunkers and came to trade in their flying saucer but they broke down above Joburg for twenty years! FUCK! Then it was all boyz in the hood.. until they were saved by Spider man, well, actually not saved but Spydy jumped into a transformer and teamed up with the good craw dad alien who escaped and will get the reinforcements to stop the V for Vendetta alien medical research (if the money is there to justify a sequel, that is).”

    Bottom line, be smart, don’t make the mistakes I made. Wait for the DVD or get the torrent if you know how to do that stuff.

  • 7. Tom  |  August 17th, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Why no mention of Wilkus’ brutal rebellion against his corporate masters in the final scenes? He did pull off one hell of a transformation during the movie. That’s what stuck in my head after watching it and where the audience had the strongest reactions. Maybe that’s more of an Ames thing.

  • 8. brenda  |  August 17th, 2009 at 7:33 am

    Hey, you weren’t paying much attention I guess because a lot of the aliens were wearing people clothes, not just the sympathetic lead.

  • 9. AR  |  August 17th, 2009 at 8:34 am

    “We’re on alert for apartheid ugliness, of course, and expect that the aliens will fill in allegorically for the oppressed black population. They do, but in a nicely complex way, becoming the bottom of the totem pole of oppression with every human across the races despising them and wanting them gone.”

    Hmmm…. sounds more like the plight of the oppressed White population. Still stuck in the 60s, Eileen? Apartheid is over. Now the order of the day in South Africa is rape, murder, and terrorizing White farmers. Much better, isn’t it.

  • 10. George  |  August 17th, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Dolan? That is also a favorite “see-how-cool-I-am” of Jonah Goldberg. Hmmm…

  • 11. LIExpressway  |  August 17th, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Saw the movie while playing hookie at work today. The review is spot on. Also it’s, not a rehash of alien nation. The aliens are really fucking alien. They’re not just people with no hair, they’re pretty damn repulsive.

    AR at #9 you obviously haven’t seen the movie, otherwise your sick little mind dreaming of hot black on white rapes would probably be very pleased as to how the black population is portrayed.

    The aliens are not an allegory for apartheid, that would be too easy. They are an allegory for any bottom of the barrel untouchable shit end of the stick population. Everyone preys on you.

    The 1st half is clever and borders on greatness, but devolves into an ultra-violent Hollywood action fest in the second half.

    A good but not great movie.

  • 12. Gesnarf!  |  August 18th, 2009 at 3:56 am

    Can’t wait to see the movie.

  • 13. deluxo  |  August 18th, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Eileen! Open your eyes. See the racism in that movie! The portrayal of Africans – all of them – was beyond stereotypical in the worst way! What does it mean when aliens are made to be way more sympathetic, smart and dimensional than Africans? I cannot believe the praise this film is getting!

  • 14. Mads Mikkelsen  |  August 19th, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Blomkamp said loud and clear that he wanted to depict blacks being racists in order to reflect the reality of today’s Joburg where SA blacks hate the poor refugees from Zimbabwe, plus the Nigerian gangsters are a fact of life there.

  • 15. spam  |  August 19th, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    I was waiting for the deluxo type African to get here and cry foul.

  • 16. LIExpressway  |  August 20th, 2009 at 11:17 am

    What is the Deluxe African type you speak of. Sounds very tasty to mine ears. Please tell.

  • 17. deluxo  |  August 21st, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Mads – is that true? Can you point me to where he said that??

  • 18. Plamen Petkov  |  August 25th, 2009 at 10:55 am

    I heard Howard Stern hyping it all week so I decided it was shit since it’s all advertising with him but I was sick with flu(swine I think) in bed and decided to torrent the low quality Russian avi and the movie did really surprised me in best way possible. It blew all the million dollars shitty Hollycrap movies outta water.
    Plus I just saw the preview of Avatar and there is NO comparison between the two. Avatar was complete shit, all mindless CGI that didnt even look that great with preachy storyline and silly cartoon characters with huge anime type eyes so we would feel compassion toward them while D9 was raw and nasty and as real looking as it gets. Hollywood can only dream of making something this good.

  • 19. CB  |  August 26th, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    “Eileen! Open your eyes. See the racism in that movie! The portrayal of Africans – all of them – was beyond stereotypical in the worst way!”

    Heh. Yeah, their “portrayal”. Did you know that those on-the-street interviews at the beginning, where they were all talking about how the prawns should go away and the government should stop helping them, were *real* interviews with people asked about the *real* immigrants coming to Africa?

    This wasn’t an allegory about Apartheid, or a stereotyping of South Africans. It was a barely-allegory about the *real life* racism that continues to exist in our world. It is real. Abuses like those suffered by the prawns in the refugee camp are real. Real people being treated like that as a matter of course is real. Calling it a stereotype just means you don’t want to hear the message.

    “What does it mean when aliens are made to be way more sympathetic, smart and dimensional than Africans?”

    Sorry that a movie which makes the oppressed more sympathetic than their oppressors offends you. You must hate Amistad or Roots. And the only ‘smart’ alien was Christopher, and he wasn’t even all that bright! The only characters fleshed out at all are him and Wicus, and sorry Wicus definitely has more dimension.

    If it makes you feel better, there *were* South Africans depicted as protesting for rights for the Prawn. So, maybe the stereotyping wasn’t as simple as you thought?

    To change topics to something less dim — while obviously MNU is supposed to represent the Big Private Defense Contractor Evil Corp both for the sake of realism and to bring in the plotline about wanting the alien weapons, did anyone else see the white vehicles and ‘we’re here to keep the peace by not interfering with the violent ganster/warlord’ mentality as a reference to the U.N.? Between that and the “MNU” name I think it was supposed to be a combined reference. And hell, you could take an article from a few years ago about U.N. forces in Sudan, replace U.N. with Blackwater, Sudan with Iraq, and probably wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t something from today’s paper.

  • 20. district 9 is awesome  |  August 26th, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    erm yea, the reason christopher is smarter is cos hes a higher rank than the rest. If u listen in one of the documentary scenes a guy says theyre all workers. But christopher isnt, hes like the pilot or something.

    But still this movie rocks from start to finish i recommend it to all.

  • 21. Alex J.  |  September 9th, 2009 at 5:30 am

    19, Agreed. You could replace “MNU” with “UN” and everything would run exactly the same. c.f No Man’s Land.

    Whenever movies present evil corporations, they are always behaving just like governments.

  • 22. Boy62  |  October 22nd, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Swedish car company wants to coat their cars with-including glass. ,

  • 23. Sharlto  |  December 11th, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Have you heard about Neill Blomkamp’s next movie?

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