The District 9 Debate: Excellent Film… Or Overrated?

Published 5 years ago by , Updated September 8th, 2009 at 10:04 pm,

district 9 header1 The District 9 Debate: Excellent Film... Or Overrated?

We here at Screen Rant make it a point to stay engaged with our readers (if you haven’t seen our epic comment sections) and usually – albeit after much debate – our forums reach some kind of equilibrium of opinion – if only settling into the usual left, right, middle ground spectrum.

The reaction to District 9, Neil Blomkamp’s feature-film debut about refugee aliens living in Johannesburg, South Africa, has been surprising. While the movie is earning high praise from critics (including us) and enjoyed a strong opening weekend at the box office, there is still a minority opinion floating around that this film isn’t as great as people are saying it is. And, despite high praise from just about all of us on the Screen Rant staff, there have been some strongly expressed criticism from a considerable pool of our readership.

So let’s talk about it! What is so right (or so wrong) about District 9?

[WARNING: This Article Contains Heavy Spoilers about District 9]

THE ANALOGY APPROACH

Ok, so the elephant in the room to address first is the whole Alien/Refugee analogy that District 9 (purposely or incidentally – I’m sure it’ll be said to be both) inspires. This issue alone has sparked some strong differences in opinion about whether the film should have taken this particular narrative approach and/or whether it succeeds in it.

district nine ver3 The District 9 Debate: Excellent Film... Or Overrated?

As to the question of whether or not the film SHOULD HAVE taken the analogous approach: not really anybody’s (but the filmmakers) place to say. However, I will say that sci-fi at its BEST has always been about analogous storytelling – something fantastic as hyperbole for something real and relevant – an whenever the genre leans too far toward the “something fantastic” end of things without accommodating the “something real and relevant” part, sci-fi becomes little more than a playground for geeks.

District 9 took a bold (risky?) step with its narrative angle. But after two viewings of the film I maintain that it succeeds – not only because it gets my mind thinking beyond the fantastic elements of sci-fi and about the world around me – but because it does so while never failing to provide plenty of nourishment for the imagination. District 9 also forced me to (for the first time) be critical of certain conventions of the sci-fi genre that (IMHO) have long gone unquestioned:

Why do we always assume that aliens who have advanced technology are automatically “better” than us?

What if alien society was as flawed and often dysfunctional as human society?

Blomkamp himself made it clear during the District 9 panel at Comic-Con this year that the “Prawns” were inspired by the concept of insects who have been separated from their leadership (forcibly emancipated in a sense) and are facing the challenges of thinking and fending for themselves.

So what if Aliens had to face the same individualistic choices and challenges we humans face? Some would kill, some wouldn’t; some would excel physically or mentally, some wouldn’t; some would be compassionate, some wouldn’t; they’d each make their own choices, have their own emotions, politics,  etc…

ALIENS FOR THE 21st CENTURY

…I never realized until District 9 how easily (or for how long) sci-fi has been spoon-feeding us the notion of monotonous alien races. It’s mostly, “Hey we’re Klingons and we’re like this!” or “We’re Predators and we do this!” Then we eventually get that one autonomous alien who is the conflicted exception to the stereotype rule – or, at best, an alien culture split into fractions by some kind of superficial/ideological difference. What District 9 presented was a much fresher and challenging concept to deal with: an alien race that doesn’t have its s@#$ together.

district 9 alien The District 9 Debate: Excellent Film... Or Overrated?

Now, I’m not fighting some crusade for diversity rights for “alien actors” – don’t get me wrong. What I’m  saying is that District 9 managed to present an interesting and (here is the important part) thought-provoking concept of individuals and society (alien or human) by holding it up against a worldly situation we can understand. That’s good sci-fi, and to write it off or not acknowledge it as such I believe is unfair.

But of course, some people have argued (you can check our comment thread) that (to paraphrase) ‘using aliens as a sort of bait-and-switch for a “Woe is Africa” message’ is the FARTHEST thing from originality.

I don’t think it needs to be debated that District 9 does in fact try to say something about South Africa (or maybe Africa as a whole?) and the experiences of its peoples. But hey, naysayers, all that stuff about a fresh look at aliens and new conventions introduced into the sci-fi genre, is also taking place in this film. The movie is always working on (at least) two levels; I know that a lot of people these days don’t bother to read great literature, but historically speaking, the greatest stories told are usually the ones that work on multiple levels while effectively relating a central tale.

District 9 – for better or worse – inspires new considerations about a fantastic concept (aliens) while simultaneously giving us new reason to consider the realities of our own world. Sounds like an accomplishment to me.

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  1. So either you recognize the greatness of District 9 or you’re a Michael Bay junkie satisfied with mediocrity? :-P

    I enjoyed the movie, but I think some people are going WAY overboard with how important they think it really is…

  2. “I’ll also concede that District 9 didn’t reinvent the wheel…But it sure did overhaul the wagon that wheel goes on.”

    Too bad “Alien Nation” got there first…in the 1980s.

  3. I have to say that I agree with you. I was just thinking today that Film watching has become a lost art. What I mean by film watching is what those of us who enjoy movies for the experience do.

    It seems that everyone else goes to a movie just to do something and they won’t see a movie if it is uninteresting to them and when I say uninteresting I mean too complex. I started writing reviews for the movies I watch because I noticed that just about anyone can write a review these days thanks to the ability to comment and all I see on sights like Fandango or NCM are the rantings of self proclaimed “film geeks” who have no schooling in the art of film or its history or just someone who wants everything spelled out for them.

    Anyone who has been to film school or taken classes on screenwriting should know that one of the worst things you can do is “spoonfeed” the audience. That seems to be what a lot of today’s audiences want. To be spoonfed.

    Come on people.Why do we go to school when we are young? Not to be told the answers, but to use the information we are given to learn them ourselves. Movies are very much the same way. They give us enough information so that we can establish a connection to the story and its characters. The rest is left to our imagination.

    With today’s moviegoers I wonder how it is that theater and Broadway are still going strong.

    Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox. Suffice it to say that the risks Blomkamp took were indeed worth it to this movie fan and many others.

  4. For being a relatively small film, ~30 million budget or so, District 9 was a phenomenal sci-fi movie. In a summer of mediocre to awful movies, District 9 and Moon stood out as what you can do with some solid script writing, a little imagination and a little creativity, something Hollywood has been missing for quite some time. These two films hopefully not be the last films in the sci-fi genre to be great films on the cheap. As for over-rated, i can see how District 9 may not be original as Alien Nation has been around for over 20 years and District 9 borrowed many of the ideals brought up in that movie, Blomkamp created some of his own new ideals to throw into the mix. The great story, combined with great performances, amazing CGI, hybrid shooting style, and great cinematogrophy have lead to a film that for the time being will stand as being of the the best sci-fi films of the past decade, maybe more, only time will tell.

  5. pst, the word is “auteur” (means “author” in French).
    just so you know :)

  6. @John Holland

    I hate overly predictable movies as much as the next person, and if you’ve read my posts you’ll know sometimes I’m overly critical, but there’s something about this “if you haven’t gone to film school you don’t know what you’re talking about” attitude that doesn’t really float with me.

    What are movies really for? Is it for the individual to enjoy, or is it to strive to meet some arbitrary standard or arbitrary criterions set by academic institutions??

    I’m sure those who only enjoy movies that satisfy the latter have a great time feeling how superior they are from the rest of the “normal” people, but really, where is the true merit in that other than to make certain individuals feel good about themselves?

    I think true works of art are those that can be deep and muti-dimensional, yet is easily accessible to the common “normal” person. I feel movies that accomplish that require FAR more effort than those made purely from the perspective of a literary or film scholar. If a film scholar can step out of his/her own shoes and shoot a movie from a perspective that us lowly “normal” people can relate to or understand, without losing the movie’s depth, I think that shows a lot more talent.

    I think there has to be a balance. While not quite as shallow and dumb as Transformers, not as high brow as some of these arthouse films. Somewhere in the middle is where it needs to be.

    But that’s only my opinion, man… :-D

  7. Oh, just FYI, I felt that District 9 does fall in the middle where I’m talking about. It was a good movie, but had its annoying quirks and plot holes that you can’t ignore.

  8. I agree with everything you said. I don’t really care what anyone says anymore because mediocrity is so worshiped. I always try to see what people find in things like Transformers 2, but only end up seeing emptiness with a shiny candy wrapper. I look at movies, and literature as well (since I am a book addict), and find that the best sellers are mostly pithy little things without meaning, like Twilight. Every once in a while there will be that little gem, but you almost always have to search for it. Those who can not see something well crafted have just looked at lesser for so long they can no longer recognize beauty. They are satisfied with what they are usually presented with and wish for no more. Imagination no longer exists among the masses as I see it.

  9. @ Mike E

    Yes that was obviously a typo, and in regards to film the word Auteur means this

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/auteur

    Just so you know :-)

  10. this is sure to be a “charged” post with lots of strong opinions. i agree with Vic on a majority of his statements. (i for one enjoyed TDK very much, but not a lot people took the time to pick it apart.) but i believe that the general attitude towards movies has indeed changed.

    long gone are the days of intelligent movie making with a strong message, real life parallels, and method actors who live in character even after the cameras stop rolling for the day.

    i personally have worked in the hi-fi/home theater business for the past 14 years so my industry is directly responsible for re-creating the theater experience. it’s in MY experience that i’ve learned the most important thing for viewers is that “movie viewing” has become about evoking an EMOTIONAL RESPONSE.

    that’s why movies like Transformers do well. on many levels its appealing to our childhood, our appetite for destruction, and lust for a hot woman. even tho the story sucked, it satisfied so many other things. even with TDK, if heath didn’t die, how well would the movie have done? let’s be honest, it was a very good movie, but was it great? was it the emotional response to heath’s death that caused people to see what the commotion was?

    when a movie like district 9 comes around, it doesn’t appeal to much. it grosses some people out. it doesn’t strike a nerve with some childhood emotion. it doesn’t have a supermodel co-star. so what’s left? it strives to connect with the viewer, so u feel something for the characters, and in that i thought it was brilliant. it tells a great story (that has been told before) about segregation and prejudice that most people don’t wanna hear. it had IMO a great actor delivering a powerful performance. but are people tired of being beat over the head with social commentary? witness the financial disaster that was watchmen.

    when i personally spend $10 on a movie ticket, i no longer ask for great film making. i simply want entertainment. and for anyone who says that they want more for their money, let me remind you that 2 hours at the state fair can cost you $50-100. so $10 for 2 hours of my time is a good deal.

    with that in mind i tend to be very forgiving of disastrous films that otherwise are laughable. once in awhile i’m awarded with something that is thought provoking, intelligent in its delivery, and sticks with me for a few days…and district 9 delivered on many levels…i’ve seen it twice and continue to recommend it to people who want to see a great movie…

  11. All of this is on an individual basis. No one will convince the other they or wrong, or right, for that matter.

    District 9 was at least a fairly good film and that’s almost agreed by everyone. There still remains questions about the plot, the originality, etc. But that exists with almost all sci-fi films. The only reason District 9 is receiving so much flack is because the critics all (or close to it) shouted it was the greatest movie of the summer, or year.

    If there wasn’t holes in a plot of cliffhangers, we’d have nothing to talk about. And we love talking.

    Neill Blomkamp obviously cares deeply for anything he is involved with. Over 300 designs for the aliens were thrown away and the film was changing its script after filming already began (which isn’t always a good thing, but he strives for the best, I suppose), and a lot of the script was improvised.

    And, this is his directorial debut. For a first film, whether you liked it or not, you have to tip your hats to Blomkamp. This film has already profited nearly double of what it was made off, and that’s a lot of profits for a summer sleeper, in August nonetheless.

    In the end, District 9 probably will be called a “cult film,” deserving so. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get the District 9 game soon and start to see little Christopher w/ kid action figures. And we’ll most defiantly see the “inevitable” sequel.

    (And I rated District 9 4.5 / 5. I enjoyed the film. But I understand both sides of this “debate”)

  12. I have yet to see this movie, but more to the point Kofi,
    I commend you on an excellent post. Realizing from a writer’s standpoint that premise and story differ often accounts for better understanding of the subject matter.
    I hope that both factions, the “It was great!’, and the “Meh”s use this formula when viewing (or reading) sci-fi material. In real life, one doesn’t always know whats going on, whats going to happen, or why it did in the first place. The mystery of working these questions out to one’s own satisfaction is my favorite part of the experience, and is what makes life more than a video game.

    Well,well,well done sir!

  13. Let’s not call it a cult film just yet as its made over 50 mil so far,,,,
    District 9, Is my pick for best film of the year…

    Runners up, .Moon, and Hurt Locker.

  14. Well 790, it doesn’t have to do poorly to be a cult film right?

  15. Like I thought it had something to do with how devoted the fanbase is to it and that it just isn’t completely mainstream, meaning it doesn’t make as much as Transformers but doesn’t need to do poorly, or something, lol, I don’t know exactly what makes it cult or not… :-D

  16. It is very hard to describe the characteristics of a cult film, but i think District 9 is set at becoming one of the most universally liked (i know not by all) films of this year. @ eddie, great post. “i for one enjoyed TDK very much, but not a lot people took the time to pick it apart” for me the problems with the dark knight was with the flawed editing and how the story and set pieces were handled. Though i love the film, i for one can understand it’s weaknesses.

    Though back to D-9, great article Kofi, agree with everything said. The fact Blomkamp made such amazing sci-fi action with that budget just messes with my mind. Hope to see more films like this in the near future, as much as i love comic book adaptations i also love being surprised at every twist and turn of a movie. Hopefully this and Avatar will show the studios that we (those who can generally tell a good film from bad) are willing to pay for originality.
    *throws eggs at micheal bay*

  17. @ Kofi Outlaw

    yes, I know what it (auteur) means in the context of film. I wasn’t disputing the use of the word in the article, only remarking on the typo :)

    It’s my only grudge with otherwise wonderful blogs: too many spelling mistakes or typos. And of course, being French, well, seeing a mangled version of an English version of a French word… it sort of jumps out at me.

    By the way, I am truly, truly, happy to have discovered this great website/blog. It’s one of my first visits every morning when I turn on my computer.

    And just to say that I am “on topic”… well, I will see District 9 and make up my own mind about whether I thought it was good or not. Chances are, I will enjoy it, and appreciate it for what it is.

  18. The thing that makes me angry is how, as Kofi said, the supposed “Plot Holes” aren’t even related to the story. I mean you can’t get angry when a question you were asking doesn’t get answered because, frankly, it had nothing to do with the story! Now if D9 had been about the actual incident of the aliens coming or going then yes maybe they should have answer those things, but it wasn’t even about that!

  19. Kofi, once again you have made a great in depth article.
    Excellent job homey!

  20. @Kofi

    EXCELLENT editorial…You explained beautifully what I too had tried to clarify in the “D9″ spoiler discussion comments section. As an English teacher, I was also thrilled that someone FINALLY pointed out the difference(s) between story and premise, which so MANY posters confuse much too often. Can we PLEEEEASE make this the comments section for this film? :P (Heh-heh…)

  21. I will say this about your final comments about mediocrity, it has run rampant. I just remember to The Incredibles with the parents arguing about going to Dash’s graduation from 4th grade to 5th and I believe the lines of dialogue are–

    “Its not a graduation. He’s just moving from 4th grade to 5th grade.”
    “Its a ceremony.”
    “Its psychotic! They keeping making up new ways to celerbate mediocrity.”

    There is a lot of truth in that and really reflects the type of world we live in.

  22. Kofi, The plot holes you discuss aren’t really plot holes per se, but extra information that would have been nice to know, but not necessary and integral to the story. Would it have been nice to know where they came from, yeah it would be. Oh and there was a recent article on slashfilm i believe, where it might have been blomkamp who said the aliens came from the andromeda galaxy. Does knowing that make the film a more complete experience? No, but it’s kinda cool.

    I will admit however, towards the end of the film, i was curious as to where the leadership had gone, and why the grunts were abandoned. But again, that may not have been necessary to discuss, but just nice to know. Hopefully in the sequel they address some of these little trinkets.

  23. Star Wars: A New Hope
    Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back
    Star Trek: Wrath of Khan
    Matrix
    Blade Runner
    Alien
    Aliens
    Terminator
    T2

    These are just some of the most epic science fiction movies ever made since Star Wars was released in 1977.

    Now, I am not saying that D9 was a bad movie. Quite the contrary, it was a very good movie. But does it deserve to be listed among those greats? I don’t believe so, and I don’t think anyone can truly make the case that it does.

  24. @Sean,
    The Star Wars movies, I wouldn’t call them necessarily as science fiction but more fantasy set in space. Much like Flash Gordon. It is set in space, but is it science fiction or Fantasy?

    I would include The Fifth Element as an epic Sci-Fi film, also Planet of the Apes.

  25. You could also call Firefly a western set in space, but it is still classified as science fiction. And I was thinking of including Fifth Element, but was trying to keep the list to those movies that are considered epic by both sci-fi lovers AND the general public (though that puts Blade Runner in question).

    But still, can anyone seriously say that District 9 deserves to be listed among those movies? I don’t think so. Maybe a second viewing would help, but I didn’t have to go to a second viewing for the Matrix. I knew as the credits rolled that I had seen something epic, and I didn’t need to be convinced by seeing it again (which I did in the theater).

    I appreciate that it isn’t a recycled idea or an 80s toy. I thought the visuals were great and the acting was pretty good. The storyline was interesting. But epic?

  26. @Andrew

    Tell those guys yelling at you in the discussion post to come right on over here!

    ;-)

    Glad you liked it. That story/premise thing is for the English studies / creative writing crowd.

  27. “What if alien society was as flawed and often dysfunctional as human society” quote from Vic and I think he nailed it. Just one of the layers Blomkamp was trying to convey. Mr John Holland made a perfect point with more conviction then I was able to do on another thread. He is totally correct. Nick, LeeAnna and Jeff made brilliant points as well. The orginal versions of “War of the Worlds” and “The Day the Earth stood Still” still deliver to this day because of the vision the film makers had for that era. I personally feel Mr. Blomkamp has done the same thing. The experience in the theatre was un-forgetable and this Sci-Fi film will live on through time and will be a measure for films of the future. D-9 shines bright on a pretty dull and lack-luster Summer. Again I thought eveyone knows the difference premise and story….but as Mr. Holland points out. Alas….most do not.

  28. You know, I just keep shaking my head at some of these comments. From what I’m reading, since I didn’t feel this movie was the best of the year, I must not understand the complexities the director was trying to convey? That’s not the case. The movie was not bad, and I’m glad many of you feel this movie was soo epic but I’m with Sean on this one. I just can’t put this movie in the same category as Star Wars (and I do feel this was a sci-fi film) or other truly epic sci-fi films. I have seen other films displaying racial injustice that I enjoyed more (Slumdog Millionaire, Glory, Braveheart) but this film just seemed boring to me in parts. Sure, the movie was better than most of the films this year but I would not consider it the best of the year.

  29. One other thing; I praise Blomkamp for delivering an intriguing first film.

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