District 9 – review

Humans OnlyI’m behind the times on this one, but I missed District 9 when it went round the cinema circuit. However, having picked up the DVD recently, I finally got to see it and find out what all the prawn fuss was over. There’ll be spoilers later, but I’ll give you fair warning.

District 9 is a very imaginative and original sci-fi movie. A massive spaceship breaks down over Johannesburg in 1985 and nothing happens. After three months of wondering, the humans finally fly up there in choppers and cut their way in to see what’s going on. They find a million very sick, malnourished aliens on board. A “humanitarian” effort is mounted. (Interestingly, what are we going to do about that term when aliens and humans do mix freely, as will obviously happen eventually. Lifetarian effort? Suggestions in the comments please).

These aliens, derogatarily referred to as prawns due to their distinct prawn-like appearance, end up in a refugee camp in Johannesburg that quickly becomes a slum. Crime and violence are rampant and people have serious issues with the whole situation. After 20 years of this an effort is finally mounted to evict the aliens and move them 200km outside town to a new refugee camp, where it will be easier to forget about them.

Wickus Van Der Merwe (seriously, one of the best protagonist names in ages) is tasked with the legal and logistic job of getting this eviction happening. Naturally, things go awry and all kinds of mayhem ensue. During one of many skirmishes that occur during the eviction, Wickus gets a spray of juice from some alien tech in the face and it alters his DNA. This alteration causes him to become slowly more prawn than human and he finds himself trapped between the human world and the prawn world and the only place to hide is District 9.

The film is shot in a very original way. It’s primarily (at the start) a documentary being made with new interviews and old stock footage of Wickus and news footage of events surrounding the start of the eviction. Security camera and CCTV footage is spliced into it and the gaps are filled with regular film-making. In literature this kind of “head-hopping” can be very poorly done and rarely comes over well, but with this film they’ve pulled it off. The prawns are excellent creatures, brilliantly realised with an array of top notch special effects, and District 9 itself is flawlessly believable.

The story doesn’t pull any punches and is as gritty and gruesome as such a situation would really be. It was all too much for my wife and she went off to do something else. We follow Wickus as he goes on the run from the company he works for. There’s more going on than anyone realises and Wickus slowly discovers secrets and gets inextricably tied up in them.

And here’s where the film falls down for me. It raises a lot of questions and answers virtually none of them. After the next picture I’ll discuss in more details those issues, but if you want to avoid spoilers don’t read on after the pic until you’ve seen the film.

District 9 is an excellent achievement in film-making. It’s different, raw and clever and it keeps a relentless pace. It has a commentary on racism, coroporate greed and the nature of “humanity” that is explored really well. It’s definitely worth seeing, if you can handle it. But be prepared to be frustrated by a lot of unanswered questions.

Read on after the pic for more, though beware lurking spoilers.

So, the unanswered questions. Let me highlight my many issues by listing all the questions I need answers to:

– Why did the alien space craft break down and grind to a halt over Johannesburg?

– Why did the alien commanders, or the smart ones, disappear?

– Why did the little craft that was hidden under Christopher’s shack drop from the mothership in the first place?

– Why was Christopher so much smarter than the others?

– Why was he desperately searching among wreckage for alien tech with this mysterious liquid in it? Where did that wreckage and rubbish come from?

– Why was there so much alien weaponry in District 9? Who brought it down from the mothership?

– Why did the liquid turn Wickus into a prawn?

– Why did the liquid aboard the little ship suddenly make the mothership capable of flying back to the prawn homeworld?

– Why couldn’t Christopher have done whatever he did (on the ground) on the mothership in the first place?

– Why didn’t they stay in space while he did that, rather than coming to hover over an Earth city?

It seems that the key point of this film is that Christopher spent 20 years in District 9 gathering this alien fluid to effect the escape by powering up the mothership. That makes no sense to me. If that’s what it took to get the ship going, surely they would have gathered all that liquid from various techs on board before they even became stranded. And Christopher is always talking about “his people” – is he the prawn leader? There’s no exploration or explanation of the hierarchy and what really happened before the events of the film. Obviously, there’s only so much that can be explored, but a few clues dropped here and there would have fleshed out the whole premise really well.

We can have a guess at the answers to several of the questions above, but none of my guesses really satisfy my curiousity. It’s unfortunate that an otherwise excellent film has all these holes in the plot and premise that take away from the overall enjoyment of the experience. Leave me some comments with your views – have you seen District 9? Am I being really dense and missing something obvious with all these questions?

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20 thoughts on “District 9 – review

  1. I actually didn’t like the movie for exactly those reasons. In the beginning there’s an implied promise that therell be at least some answers, some resolution. It delivered on none as far as I could see, which means they just wasted my time. Thumbs down.

  2. Fair call. It made what could have been a great movie a very mediocre movie for me. From an effects, ideas and film-making perspective it’s outstanding. But the holes in the story really let it down.

  3. One of the key questions, which is hopefully something we can look forward to is ‘what will happen in 3 years time when Christopher returns?’ Presumably with a fully functional rescue fleet.

    It does say in the film that they have assumed that they are a hive structure and something killed off the leadership or maybe ‘Queen’. Without a Queen, a hive has no direction or purpose and Drones will often just keep doing their job until they die off as they don’t know what else to do.

    As for why it took Christopher so long – applying human terms you could say he was maybe mid 30’s, making him a teenager when the ship stopped. He would not have been in any position to take command and sort things out. He probably spent most of those 20 years learning about what needed to be done. Maybe he was an apprentice engineer and had to finish his training on his own away from the ship. That’d take time.

    It’s also mentioned that bits keep falling off the ship – hence the debris. Plus moving a population of a million down to the ground, there would have been a fair amount of things brought off the ship that they wouldn’t have know about, including weapons.

    They obviously breath oxygen, so with the ship in such disrepair, you could assume that staying in space would have ultimately suffocated all of them. Presumably Earth was the first breathable planet they came across. As for Johannesberg – why does every other alien species always turn up in the US?

    I think a lot of these questions are unanswered because in the film, they are treated exactly like the real world Shanty Towns – they are an inferior sub species. As they say at the start, they eyes of the world were on them so they had to be seen to be doing something for them. Beyond basic food and shelter and simply doing enough to appear as do-gooders in the eyes of the media, all they’re doing is containing them and nothing more. The first subtitled words out for one of the creatures are “Fuck off”. Wickus works for a department that deals with ‘Human Prawn Relations’ and this is as far as they’ve come?

    I was happy to have the questions there. The film comes in at a point where they are looking to relocate them to District 10 (essentially a concentration camp) and simply move the problem out of the way. For the humans, that’s all they are – a problem. Why learn about the intricacies of a Wasp hive and how it functions when you can simply call up a guy to get rid of it. I think the questions say more about the humans in the film, than what they don’t say about the aliens.

    In case you hadn’t guessed, I loved it. I’d also refer you to an email I sent on the 30th September last year pointing out that I thought it might traumatise H! Don’t say you weren’t warned.

  4. Well, I assumed from the way it was filmed that the unresolved questions were because it was shot from the point of view of the humans anyway. But that still doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have answered the questions. It was a very big letdown for me, especially when it had such potential. It’s not even that they didn’t answer EVERY question, but that they didn’t answer.

  5. oops. That last sentence should read,
    It’s not even that they didn’t answer EVERY question, but that they didn’t answer any.

    Sorry for the typo.

  6. Graham, great thoughts. You’ve clearly thought harder about it than I have, and presumably seen it more than once? 🙂

    One of the key questions, which is hopefully something we can look forward to is ‘what will happen in 3 years time when Christopher returns?’ Presumably with a fully functional rescue fleet.

    Yeah, a sequel would answer that, but films that deliberately leave unanswered questions for sequels piss me off!

    It does say in the film that they have assumed that they are a hive structure and something killed off the leadership or maybe ‘Queen’.

    OK, I missed the hive comment. It explains the nature of the breakdown of prawn society to some degree. However, it raises a new question: Why is Chistopher Johnson such a smart drone then? How does he have all that gear and know all about the computer systems for the mothership. Even his kid knew! Why was that shuttle thing under his shack?

    As for why it took Christopher so long – applying human terms you could say he was maybe mid 30’s, making him a teenager when the ship stopped. He would not have been in any position to take command and sort things out. He probably spent most of those 20 years learning about what needed to be done. Maybe he was an apprentice engineer and had to finish his training on his own away from the ship. That’d take time.

    This is a feasible idea to some extent, but it’s a bit like trying to shoehorn a watermelon into a slot machine. 😉

    It’s also mentioned that bits keep falling off the ship – hence the debris.

    I missed that bit too. But would bits with the extra-special-super-powered-macguffin-liquid keep falling off? And, if so, would the mothership be functional to take them away again after 20 years of falling apart?

    Plus moving a population of a million down to the ground, there would have been a fair amount of things brought off the ship that they wouldn’t have know about, including weapons.

    There’s no way that the powers that be wouldn’t notice prawns bringing weaponry down. They’d be very paranoid about what was being brought down and checking everything. And those things are clearly weapons. I don’t buy this. I think District 9 being littered with alien weaponry is a real flaw. And besides, why didn’t the drones take up those arms that were there and go apeshit, demanding better conditions? Or at least more catfood?

    They obviously breath oxygen, so with the ship in such disrepair, you could assume that staying in space would have ultimately suffocated all of them. Presumably Earth was the first breathable planet they came across.

    OK, this one is a good point. If they were likely to be in need for a long time it would make sense to get into a breathable atmosphere and open the vents!

    As for Johannesberg – why does every other alien species always turn up in the US?

    Don’t get me wrong – I love that this film was not set in the US. One of the best things about it was that it’s almost anti-Hollywood in every respect. The fact that it was Jo’burg was cool. My point was really, Why did the ship break down? What happened that made them need to take refuge in Earth’s atmosphere? (See how I’ve worked one of your answers cleverly into my worldview!)

    I think a lot of these questions are unanswered because in the film, they are treated exactly like the real world Shanty Towns – they are an inferior sub species.

    But this could have been just as clearly portrayed while giving us (the audience) a deeper understanding of the story.

    Why learn about the intricacies of a Wasp hive and how it functions when you can simply call up a guy to get rid of it. I think the questions say more about the humans in the film, than what they don’t say about the aliens.

    No way. This happens anywhere and people go to massive lengths to study and understand. That’s human nature. Sure, the governments would be looking out for themselves, the corporations would be making money, but somewhere the study and science would be happening.

    In case you hadn’t guessed, I loved it.

    You did? 🙂 I really enjoyed it too, it was new and different and totally not an American movie – all great points. But it would have been amazing if they’d spent a bit more time polishing up the story and spack-filling the holes that stand out so blatantly.

    I’d also refer you to an email I sent on the 30th September last year pointing out that I thought it might traumatise H! Don’t say you weren’t warned.

    Wow, that’s some record keeping. I bow my head in shame – I have no recollection of that conversation, and stand corrected. I’m not telling H though!

  7. Maybe I need to watch it again properly – I saw it 25 mins in on the way to London and then after it ended had to wait half an hour for the loop to start over and then watch the beginning – same with Star Trek – damn BA, Qantas is on demand!! Due to that I do think all the questions you had really occurred to me, although the whole ‘what did they come here for’ and ‘is this all the humans want to do with them’ did flash in my brain – Maybe cause I read an interview in Empire before seeing it, I saw it more as an reflection of the SA whites and their treatment of the the prawns like they treated the blacks – as a sub species and nothing more – Thus a metaphor for worldwide racism and class division – the actual search for fluid so they could go home was just a sub plot to the underlying theme? Maybe the fluid contained something earthbound which is why Christopher was collecting it on the ground – it wasnt the normal rocket fuel but maybe something that will work – kinda like Mr Fusion on the DeLorian in Back to the Future 2 – its not genuine, but it gets the engine cranking over??

    Commanders? Maybe they died or fled – given this ship had over a million of them on it – i doubt it was just a cruiser – its more like a relocation ship – like Battlestar Galactica – the whole race fled whereever they came from in distress in search of a new home?

    Landing in J.Berg, as Graham said, why does it have to always be the US?

    Landing craft underground? maybe it was already there like in War of the Worlds?

    Christopher was just smarter cause he name simply means ‘the smartest one’ 😉

    Weaponry – again move a million people and all sorts of shit will get smuggled and I bet they were fighting among themselves just as much as they did with the humans – We do it.

    The fluid turned Wickus into a Prawn cause if it didnt, the movie wouldve stopped dead hehehe

    Alien/human mix = Lifetarian? Sounds ok to me – what about Prawn Cocktail? Carbon Based Biped Rescue or Prius People 😉

  8. I saw it more as an reflection of the SA whites and their treatment of the the prawns like they treated the blacks – as a sub species and nothing more – Thus a metaphor for worldwide racism and class division – the actual search for fluid so they could go home was just a sub plot to the underlying theme?

    Sure, the allegory was clear. But you can’t have a theme and then just ram a shit subplot into it. Then again, you like Dan Brown books. 😉

    Maybe the fluid contained something earthbound which is why Christopher was collecting it on the ground – it wasnt the normal rocket fuel but maybe something that will work – kinda like Mr Fusion on the DeLorian in Back to the Future 2 – its not genuine, but it gets the engine cranking over??

    Well, no, cos they were actively searching for alien tech.

    Commanders? Maybe they died or fled – given this ship had over a million of them on it – i doubt it was just a cruiser – its more like a relocation ship – like Battlestar Galactica – the whole race fled whereever they came from in distress in search of a new home?

    No, because Christopher and his kid are dreaming of going back home.

    Landing in J.Berg, as Graham said, why does it have to always be the US?

    FFS! I don’t have a problem with J’burg! See my answer above. The pertinent part of the question is WHY DID IT BREAK DOWN?, not why it chose to park over J’burg.

    Landing craft underground? maybe it was already there like in War of the Worlds?

    No, you saw it drop from the ship at the start and they searched but couldn’t find it. Why? For what?

    Christopher was just smarter cause he name simply means ‘the smartest one’ 😉

    That’s what your mum used to tell you, eh? 😉

    Weaponry – again move a million people and all sorts of shit will get smuggled

    Nah, don’t buy this one.

    The fluid turned Wickus into a Prawn cause if it didnt, the movie wouldve stopped dead hehehe

    Exactly. That’s a fundamental flaw!

  9. I saw it more as an reflection of the SA whites and their treatment of the the prawns like they treated the blacks – as a sub species and nothing more – Thus a metaphor for worldwide racism and class division – the actual search for fluid so they could go home was just a sub plot to the underlying theme?

    Sure, the allegory was clear. But you can’t have a theme and then just ram a shit subplot into it. Then again, you like Dan Brown books. 😉

    Fuck off – I read your stuff didnt I?? hehe

    Maybe the fluid contained something earthbound which is why Christopher was collecting it on the ground – it wasnt the normal rocket fuel but maybe something that will work – kinda like Mr Fusion on the DeLorian in Back to the Future 2 – its not genuine, but it gets the engine cranking over??

    Well, no, cos they were actively searching for alien tech. –

    Thus my need to watch it again, I mustve forgot about this – well, maybe the lab on the ship is/was damaged? But yeah if it was, they shouldve said so

    Commanders? Maybe they died or fled – given this ship had over a million of them on it – i doubt it was just a cruiser – its more like a relocation ship – like Battlestar Galactica – the whole race fled whereever they came from in distress in search of a new home?

    No, because Christopher and his kid are dreaming of going back home.

    So a million prawns just went out for a Sunday drive??

    Landing in J.Berg, as Graham said, why does it have to always be the US?

    FFS! I don’t have a problem with J’burg! See my answer above. The pertinent part of the question is WHY DID IT BREAK DOWN?, not why it chose to park over J’burg.

    Ah, did it break down or run out of fuel? Either way, for it to just hover there for 3 months until the humans went to them – is bizarre and their anti gravity must still work as they were hovering! So it must still have some kind of power supply

    Landing craft underground? maybe it was already there like in War of the Worlds?

    No, you saw it drop from the ship at the start and they searched but couldn’t find it. Why? For what?

    Ah, then I def need to watch it again and not on a 5×8 screen on the back of a chair!

    Christopher was just smarter cause he name simply means ‘the smartest one’ 😉

    That’s what your mum used to tell you, eh? 😉

    Yupp

    Weaponry – again move a million people and all sorts of shit will get smuggled

  10. Done it for you!

    Fuck off – I read your stuff didnt I?? hehe

    You did. That’s how you know quality. 🙂

    So a million prawns just went out for a Sunday drive??

    Maybe, we don’t know.

    These questions need answers!

  11. I saw it when it first came out and loved it. I had a couple of other thoughts about your questions:

    – Why did the alien space craft break down and grind to a halt over Johannesburg?
    Why should every alien ship ALWAYS stop over the USA (Just kidding)

    – Why did the alien commanders, or the smart ones, disappear?
    My impression was that the little craft dropping off at the start WAS the top brass. I figured they must have thought they were going to crash so saved themselves or something, and to hell with everyone else. Or maybe they were the ones who managed to bust the ship in the first place and were fleeing 1,000,000 angry mutineers (and who could blame them?). I thought Christopher was one of the leaders, maybe the only surviving one from the crash, but hiding (possibly from both human and prawn) until he could get the ship back up and running.

    – Why did the little craft that was hidden under Christopher’s shack drop from the mothership in the first place?
    Cause of what I just said :p

    – Why was Christopher so much smarter than the others?
    He’s a leader?

    – Why was he desperately searching among wreckage for alien tech with this mysterious liquid in it? Where did that wreckage and rubbish come from?
    Again I figure it was stuff brought down during the evacuation of the ship, or stuff dropping off it. My guess as to why he was looking for it was for the power juice so he could Macgyver the mothership back together. I pictured someone’s car battery going flat, and them having to gather up all the AA batteries in a shopping centre to get enough juice to start it again. That’d definitely take some time.

    – Why was there so much alien weaponry in District 9? Who brought it down from the mothership?
    I figured some of it was brought down, some of it was constructed after. All the prawns would clearly have some sort of function such as weapon/tech builder, so presumably in the absence of any instructions from above, they’d just keep doing what they knew (that and human-prawn porn)

    – Why did the liquid turn Wickus into a prawn?
    All the alien tech is only usable by the prawns, so there must be some sort of biological/DNA component to it. It might have been a stretch, but my assumption was the juice bridged some sort of technological/biological gap.

    – Why did the liquid aboard the little ship suddenly make the mothership capable of flying back to the prawn homeworld?
    Cause it’s just super-charged, biologically enhanced battery acid.

    – Why couldn’t Christopher have done whatever he did (on the ground) on the mothership in the first place?
    He was gathering all the AA batteries and cracking them open.

    – Why didn’t they stay in space while he did that, rather than coming to hover over an Earth city?
    It’s hard to breathe, and they were running out of food.

    Like I said, I’m probably forgetting a bunch of stuff (and getting some horribly wrong) but I thought it was great, although the full prawnification rather than stopping at ‘hybrid’ bugged me a bit.

  12. My impression was that the little craft dropping off at the start WAS the top brass. I figured they must have thought they were going to crash so saved themselves or something, and to hell with everyone else. Or maybe they were the ones who managed to bust the ship in the first place and were fleeing 1,000,000 angry mutineers (and who could blame them?). I thought Christopher was one of the leaders, maybe the only surviving one from the crash, but hiding (possibly from both human and prawn) until he could get the ship back up and running.

    This makes some sense. But then there was only Christopher and his son? In charge of a million drones? Possible, but a bit weird.

    I pictured someone’s car battery going flat, and them having to gather up all the AA batteries in a shopping centre to get enough juice to start it again.

    I quite like this analogy – it does make a bit of sense. Kinda. 🙂

    the full prawnification

    This is an album title. This album must be made. Or a band must use this as a band name.

  13. Ok I’ve seen it twice, at the cinema and at home on Blue Ray. I was blown away on the first viewing and it stands up to subsequent viewings well. The argument is that there are several major plot points unexplained, I don’t think in the main that this is an issue. Consider that the story is filmed mainly a live news story and the Prawns have been here for 20 years. In the context of the narrative many of the questions would have already been answered and are not particularly relevant to unfolding events, especially when viewed from the perspective of the arrogant SA society treating the Prawns as third class entities. They see them as so inferior they don’t care to even ask.

    Wickus is so out of his depth he doesn’t even realise he is being set up as a potential fall guy by his father in law and as such the deeper questions are not asked by him so are not relevant to the story. Besides we are talking about truly alien technology so your average bureaucrat like those doing the round up have no idea what they are looking at.

    Finally it’s a story about societies and the inequities and prejudices they foster, not a hard SF technological expose. It’s also only movie length which puts severe constraints on the technical knowledge and back story that you can present without taking time away from the main thrust of the story which is a Human no sentient tale. Unlike say Star Trek which has many years of cumulative, and often contradictory, exposition to draw from District 9 is a one off.

    Like life you don’t need to know or understand everything to enjoy the journey an I found the movie to be a very fine journey indeed.

  14. To some degree I agree with you, but good storytelling places the audience in a more informed position and from that we can draw a deeper understanding of the characters and their experiences. I certainly don’t want everything spelled out and some unanswered questions are always good – let the audience draw some of their own conclusions. But in this instance there was too much outstanding and it took away from the experience for me. In places the storytelling (or lack of it) was lazy.

    However, you’re right that a film timeframe places massive restrictions. That’s why books are always better than films. 😉

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