Retro Steady Cut: District 9, 10 Years Later

It has been a quick 10 years since the release of Oscar-nominated sci-fi movie District 9. Loved by critics and audiences alike, District 9 was refreshingly unique as Neil Blomkamp delivered a grungy, dark and filthy sci-fi thriller to audiences around the globe. Making his directorial debut, Blomkamp shot straight into the limelight as his controversial, arguably political alien sci-fi film gained the attention of cinema-goers around the globe. District 9 made an impressive $210,819,611 profit cumulatively worldwide and is rated 90% by critics; it is a fine example of how theming, direction and creative marketing can come together to attract mass audience interest.

The year is 1982 and a colossal spaceship appears over the town of Johannesburg, holding a population of ill-ridden aliens in need of refuge. The aliens are placed in an internment camp called District 9, and after 28 years the creatures remain, having turned the camp into a lawless ghetto. Unfortunately, their presence becomes a nuisance as local residents vilify the creatures they now refer to as ‘prawns’, a derogatory term created to humiliate and ironically ‘de-humanize’. A military group is contracted to remove the ‘prawns’ from their camp by force and leads one incompetent government official to come into contact with a foreign chemical. The newly infected official must accept the aid of two prawns in order to reverse the effects of the chemical, in order to avoid becoming a prawn himself.

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Although not intended to be the forefront of the topic for Blomkamp, District 9 was highly regarded for it’s implied similitude to themes of racism and segregation. Based upon Blomkamps short movie ‘Alive in Joburg’, District 9 covers topics such as xenophobia, social segregation, and forced eviction. Inspired by the very real events of the 1970s, District 9 is based upon the event in which a population of minority communities was forcibly removed from District 6 under the apartheid regime. Blomkamp opened the door for a politically charged sci-fi movie that took the idea of Aliens vs Humans to a place of moral reflection. Where the audience suddenly feel conscious of the stereotypically accepted narrative of Good (humans) vs Evil (aliens).

This being so, District 9 was not received positively by all, the movie is actually banned in Nigeria due to its depiction of Nigerian residents. The Nigerian characters are depicted as dangerous criminals who partake in misguided cannibalistic rituals in order to gain ‘Alien’ power. The political allegory was not so welcomed as Nigeria’s Information Minister at the time, Dora Akunyilli, condemned Blomkamp for also naming the fictional Nigerian gang leader ‘Obesandjo’ which was far too similar to the name of former president Olusegun Obasanjo. This being said, actor Eugene Khumbanyiwa who plays Obesandjo in the movie argues, “It’s a story, you know. It’s not like Nigerians do eat aliens. Aliens don’t even exist in the first place”. A fair point but then again all is fair game in the art of finding meaning and interpretation.

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A notable factor contributing to District 9‘s commercial success can be attributed to the immersive and engaging viral marketing campaign. The marketing team created ads that were disguised as real-life posters encouraging segregation, using ‘humans only’ as a warning to any other species especially prawns to stay away. Placed upon bus-stops and benches these posters had no mention of the movie title or tagline, instead, they instructed citizens to report any misuse of the ‘humans only’ facilities to a website linked to the District 9 official website. Even the site itself was made up of ‘external’ links all created to sell an idea of a working world. The links included games and even blogs written from the perspective of certain characters in the movie. The D-9.com website also had live updates from Johannesburg, a news feed, rules list and regulations for audiences to engage with.

District 9 was the first ever documentary-style film to be nominated for an Oscar Best Picture, a monumental achievement for Blomkamp’s debut. The CGI of the Prawns blended in perfectly with the handheld camera footage, seamlessly bringing a sense of realism and authenticity. A master class in CGI, District 9 perfectly embodies what is possible in creating a distinguished level of credibility to a fictional species, essential for the audience’s engagement with the subjects on screen. The exceptional CGI characters are further lifted by the stellar performance by Sharlto Copley, as he goes from the feebleminded mercenary to the unpalatable xenophobe until finally a selfless martyr.

Overall District 9 is controversial, engaging and a genuinely entertaining piece of modern-day science-fiction. The marketing is incomparable, the acting passionate and raw, and the cinematography is immersive and absorbing, taking audiences into the rugged residence of a Prawn ghetto. The xenophobic undertones are thoroughly provoking and have influenced many discussions over the years in regards to changing political landscapes. Given the unrest in recent events influenced by an unstable dynamic between world leaders and right-wing groups, now might be the perfect opportunity to re-watch District 9 and experience a lesson in humility and compassion.

Kelly Potter

Kelly has been a film critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018. Kelly gained a BSc in Film Production and Technology leading to her most notable credit for the production designer for a short film screened as part of the London Film Festival line up.

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