Though District 9 is one of the most ambitious films of the summer, it is also one of the most subtle in the way that it uncovers so many possible parallels and connotations to our society, yet appropriately abandons any notion of preaching to its audience.
This process provides the film with an undeniable momentum that is never lost, even when the social criticism is met head-on with extreme violence in the second half of the film. Though director Neill Blomkamp seems to uphold a clear, overall message, he never blinds the audience with it.
There are numerous directions to take with District 9, as its plot revolves around the appearance of a monstrous space craft that has lost power over Johannesburg, South Africa, and its millions of alien inhabitants that seek refuge among humans.
At first the aliens — or prawns, which they are because they resemble an elaborate crustacean — are met with fascination and curiosity by the city’s people. But as the prawns become more incorporated and reliant on human society, they become regarded as the lowest class, and are thoroughly discriminated against by the humans.
Segregation becomes mankind’s only response to these extraterrestrials, and the prawns are confined to their own area — labeled District 9 — where they can live peaceful lives, completely void of all human contact. It becomes separate-but-equal all over again.
The prawns become a bastard race, totally disregarded by humanity; the term “prawn” itself is meant to be derogatory. Apartheid is the film’s most prominent allegory, especially since these events take place in South Africa, but District 9 easily unfolds into several other satirical implications — such as the Holocaust, abortion, mass media and corporate greed — as the plot takes shape.
What makes District 9 so successful is how it intertwines all of these elements flawlessly and coherently; as each implication of human selfishness plays out on the screen, it is never overly obnoxious or indulgent in its intent. Finger pointing is inevitable, but like any great satire, it does not become the sole purpose of the film.
Instead of overshadowing the plot by lamenting obvious blame, the film pushes these key issues aside. While their place in the film is important, Blomkamp does not make them the most prominent element, which ultimately maintains the film’s fresh perspective.
Blomkamp also utilizes a superb process of illusions within the film that help balance the action and the narrative. The most crucial example would be the style that drives most of the first half of the film in which a great deal of information is given to the audience as if District 9 were an actual documentary.
This style presents social criticism in a more legitimate manner because, like everything else in the film, it is all presented in a very raw, human approach. It is plagued with personal opinion, bias and a lasting sense of superiority on the part of the humans. Basically, the narrative is presented in an imperfect way — completely unreliable at times, yet still difficult to consider irrelevant.
By strategically establishing this unique narrative, the film creates enough room for its central story of a human stuck in between the human and prawn social struggle, and, as it firmly establishes its protagonist and its direction, District 9 easily reconstructs the very idea of science fiction films altogether.
In many ways, District 9 is purely an action film. The second half is filled with gun battle after gun battle, but similar to 2006’s highly acclaimed Children of Men, the extreme violence is never unnecessary and never questionable.
The film does get very brutal at certain parts, but the violence is given such detail and precision that this first-time director can make the style of veteran action directors like Tony Scott become obsolete. This is only possible because there is as much care given to the violence as there is given to the story — a feat that few films accomplish successfully.
Never taking both its brutality and intellectualism to an extreme, District 9 becomes a standout film that provides a complete visceral experience.