Movie Review: “District 9”

03 Oct

Most science-fiction plots centered on aliens take one of two approaches: either the aliens are merciless inhuman invaders (“War of the Worlds” and “Independence Day” spring to mind) or they are loving, gentle bringers of secret knowledge for humankind (think “E.T.” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). “District 9” – the latest film produced by “Lord of the Rings” mastermind Peter Jackson, falls into neither category.

In 1982, an alien spaceship appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. Inside: a ragged group of emaciated alien creatures from an unknown planet. The aliens are rapidly evacuated from the derelect ship and transported to the surface, where they congregate in a slum known as “District 9”

Several years later, the aliens have become a liability, with mercenaries and gangsters constantly preying on the aliens’ naivete. The difficulties of interspecies assimilation start causing outbreaks of violence with the South African residents, and the government decides that the aliens must be relocated to an “internment camp.” Multi-National United (MNU), a private corporation, is assigned to carry out the eviction of District 9 and the relocation of the 1.5 million aliens inside. Why not just kill them? As MNU sees it, the aliens possess an assortment of incredibly powerful weaponry that, for some reason, cannot be utilized by humans. It is the search for a means of using these weapons that prevents them from committing total genocide.

Wikus van der Merwe is a nice white-collar bureaucrat oblivious to the real-world consequences of his decisions. Tasked with leading the eviction of the aliens, he proceeds to lead a platoon of MNU soldiers into District 9, forcibily arresting all those who resist. Among the aliens in District 9 are the inventor Christopher and his young son, who have just made a discovery that threatens to destabilize the delicate balance of power in the area. But before they are able to employ it, Wikus arrives and confiscates a key component. As he’s examining the component, Wikus unintentionally sprays himself with a black, gooey fluid.

This fluid slowly begins to transform Wikus into an alien…which makes him incredibly valuable to the MNU. If he can use the aliens’ weapons (an arsenal of gadgets that put “Halo” to shame)…perhaps his DNA holds the secret to allowing all humans access to this powerful technology. They plan on dissecting him to learn the secret of this shift…but before they can succeed, Wikus escapes and flees into the dystopian labyrinth of District 9.

This film contains an incredible amount of worldview-analysis material, and I’ll try not to give too much away so as not to spoil the ending.

First of all, “District 9” takes an undeniably pro-life position. In one particularly horrible scene, Wikus orders soldiers with flamethrowers to torch a hovel containing alien eggs. Just before giving the order , he rips out an alien feeding tube and tosses it to a soldier as a “souvenir”…notably, this tube closely resembles a saline injector used in partial-birth abortions. The pitiful screams of the young – casually roasted alive – are genuinely heart-wrenching.This is a powerful, provocative pro-life statement.

Secondly, the naming of the alien “Christopher” is not coincidental. It is Christopher that first opens Wikus’ eyes to the horrors committed in District 9 by the MNU and the other human gangsters, and it is Christopher that serves as the emotional heart of the film. He eventually emerges as a messianic figure for his people – persevering even through extreme sorrow, and risking his own life for a fallen human like Wikus.

Most interestingly, however, is the way that director Neill Bloemkamp causes viewers’ attitude toward the aliens to shift. At the beginning of the film, the aliens seem absolutely disgusting. Their ways seem so foreign to the more “civilized” humans…and it’s not hard to sympathize with those who want to eradicate them. But by the end of the film, the aliens seem far more worthy of respect than the humans around them.

In a symbolic twist, Wikus’ moral development accelerates as he transforms into an alien. Despite the physical pain he feels, he is undeniably becoming a braver and more heroic figure. From a Christian standpoint, this is especially meaningful. What if the aliens – seemingly so foreign and worthy of extinction – are a metaphor for something else…such as the people of the Church?

The aliens originally attempt to remain innocent, but are exploited by ruthless mercenaries who take advantage of them. They display compassion, love, and honor, even if the humans around them are too blind to see it. In the same way, God’s people have never been truly understood by the rest of society – they are often persecuted by hostile forces and constantly maligned by the media. The process of entering the Christian life – just like Wikus’ transformation into an alien – may be agonizing at first (as our redeemed souls wage battle with our sinful flesh…changing us from the inside out), but ultimately, our faith and practice separate us from the rest of the world.

It’s certainly food for thought…and it’s deeper and more complex than any movie I’ve seen since last year’s “The Dark Knight.”

From a technical standpoint, “District 9” is excellent. The camera is a bit on the jerky side – in “Bourne” style, which seems to be increasingly prevalent among film directors – but it’s a relatively minor annoyance. Nothing in the film looks “computer-generated” – it feels lifelike and plausible. This realism is further enhanced through documentary-style film clips which play throughout the movie, elevating “District 9” above many other science-fiction films.

Sounds all good, right?

Not exactly.

“District 9” is the most violent film I have ever seen. Battles between the aliens and humans are depicted with excruciating detail, as is Wikus’ accelerating transformation. The climactic scene is a blood-soaked battle royale that will unsettle even the most jaded viewers. To make matters worse, these gruesome images are accompanied by near-constant usage of the f-word. I’ve never seen quite this much gore and language packed into a single film.

Should you watch it?

“District 9” is a harsh, brutal look at the depravity of man. The graphic violence and seemingly unending profanity will put this film squarely off-limits for most of those who are reading this. Kids In Mind, an independent website that rates film content on a 1-to-10 scale, gave “District 9” a 10 in both the Violence and Language categories.

However, “District 9” is also a brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed film. Personally, I found it exciting, philosophically compelling, and eminently memorable. It has a spiritual richness and emotional depth that’s sorely lacking from most modern-day films.

It’s a good movie…but it’s definitely not for everyone.

VERDICT: 9.5/10
An intense, disturbing, and thought-provoking masterpiece of science fiction.

Normalized Score: 8.7

WARNING: “District 9” is rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. This film contains strong graphic violence, constant foul language, and highly disturbing imagery. NOT recommended for viewers under 18.

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Posted by on October 3, 2009 in Sci-Fi


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