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. Django, I concur.

    They actually took real footage from the conflicts going on there and digitally put the aliens and spaceship in there.

    It’s just another layer to this experience. But it is an important layer that really makes you question your humanity (cliche but it’s true)

    Avatar looks okay but too much like a fantasy video game. I guess you can’t compare the two but I’d rather watch D9. It just seems relevant because the situation described in there can actually happen.

  2. Uh, pouring money and other resources into those countries is about the worst thing to do… All you end up doing is help fund warring factions and terrorists. And before you go “ooh, you used the t-word, fear monger!” This has been true LONG before 9/11. Look at what happened in the mog in the 1990′s, that started as a humanitarian mission distributing food…

  3. ogb and django, sorry to interupt, but I think it’s pretty ridiculous to start a war between the two movies.

    1st, Avatar hasn’t come out yet, you don’t know if it has a relevant message in it or not.

    2nd, you are comparing apples to oranges and criticizing the orange for being too orange compared to the apple… Avatar didn’t set out to look like a documentary, District 9 didn’t set itself out to be a fantasy sci-fi love story. They are what they are. Are you going to say Star Wars sucked because it was too adventure and wasn’t like a documentary like D9 was??

    So yes, Avatar does seem more like fantasy. But that’s what he intended, so I guess Cameron should thank you for the compliment.

  4. KEN J

    Read my last post

    I said YOU CAN”T COMPARE THE TWO BUT I’D RATHER WATCH D9.

    This has little to do with Cameron and what he set out to do. This has to do with the hype around the movie and ppl branding it as rebirth or second coming of great sci fi movies.

    D9 was a great sci fi movie for reasons explained. Avatar will probably be pretty good. Call me old fashioned but I would prefer a film that gives me both a sense of realism (this could actually happen) with a taste of truly great sci fi elements (space ships, awesome weapons, etc)

    Avatar looks like it goes overboard with CGI and not the good kind either. The creatures look drawn, the battle scenes are exciting but again look fake, etc. The 3D also feels somewhat of a gimmick.

    Again, I know they’re two different movies and I have not seen Avatar. For all I know it will be great. But as far as the sci fi hype, ppl need to relax with that when talking about Avatar and talking down about D9.

    I thought the Avatar footage looked straight out of a Halo game.

  5. Actually, if you really want to get technical, D9 is supposed to have already happened, and we know it didn’t, so technically, D9 has a 100% chance that it will never be true. While Avatar takes place on another planet in the future. We don’t know what the future holds and you can’t say that what that movie depicts will never happen. And looking again at D9, there’s no way an alien ship with living aliens in it would show up there and the place not end up a circus with all of the aliens being studied by governments all around the world, not just some apparent civilian “MNU” entity. You know our first contact would not end up to resemble just some refugee camp, come on. I liked the movie, but I’m not going to be an idiot and think that it could really happen.

    And again, you haven’t seen Avatar yet, you don’t know if Avatar will satisfy your criteria for a great sci-fi movie or not. You’re basically comparing something you know with speculation. I’m not saying you have to be excited for Avatar, heck, don’t watch it at all for all I care, but stop talking about it like you know what’s it’s about and how Cameron is going to have the story play out.

    I’m optimistic about it because I’m familiar with Cameron’s previous works, so for me, if it even approaches the quality of story-telling of his other movies like Terminator 2, it will completely blow away D9 FOR ME, maybe not for you, but Terminator 2 is my favorite movie of all time, so I really prefer that type of story telling over anything else. The documentary style thing was unique and was interesting, but ultimately, it’s something that will quickly overstay its welcome. I already foresee sci-fi movies in the near future that would employ the docu-shakey-cam gimmick, and most likely they will suck compared to D9 because it would not be original…

  6. Um sorry but your “technical” argument is horrible. 100% chance it WILL NEVER be true? Really. Didn’t know you can see into the future and all.

    You use words/phrases like “there’s no way” and “will never” all you want but doesn’t change the fact that neither you nor I know that. I’m saying IT’S MORE BELIEVABLE that the scenario in D9 will happen then the one in Avatar. How can you deny that?

    And D9, aliens landing, it DID turn into a circus. The aliens WERE being studied and the findings of the studies were going to be bid on by NUMEROUS WORLD GOVERNMENTS. Did you not catch that part? The weapon research was what the governments were after. You just disproved your own point.

    And T2 being your favorite movie, the bias that you have is apparent. AND THERE”S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT but please be more respectful and thoughtful when you put down D9.

    And for what it’s worth T2 is in my top 3 movies of all time. I even have a poster of it in my room signed by John Connor himself (Got his autograph when he was on his way to Century City Mall with his parents; he wrote “The Pope Shoots Dope” lol)

  7. ogb, the movie took place IN THE PAST, which, ALREADY HAPPENED, so unless we can turn back the clock and somehow events will unfold differently and a space ship will appear somewhere on earth, we already know that D9 isn’t possible… clear enough? or still no?

  8. Actually, the MNU was a megacorporation, not really any government. They wanted to develop the weapons so they can sell the tech TO world governments…

    Unless somehow I completely missed out on where they said they were some government, lol.

    Anyway, who cares, I’m actually not even interested in this really, there’s no reason to argue about it, nobody’s going to change our minds. You want to assume you know what Avatar will be like, fine by me, as long as I get tickets to it I can care less if anyone else watches it, lol. So just pretend I didn’t say anything, you two are 100% right, Avatar *is* a cartoon fantasy film, D9 is really realistic. There. :-)

  9. KEN J

    Man, you’re just bitter and won’t let up even if you’re wrong.

    Really pulling at straws with your technicalities.

    I was trying to be logical and explain some of the faults in your arguments. You go on the defensive and come up with crazy “technicalities” just so you can’t be wrong.

    Arguing with you is pointless.

  10. Ken J:

    Quit being technical.

    Start being realistic.

    Alien Elves don’t exist.

    Johannesberg and Nigerian refugees DO.

    We’re not saying District 9 will result in more toys, companion novels, video games and role playing games than Avatar. (It most certainly WON’T.)

    We’re saying we’re sick of sci-fi that would use a meter-stick like that to measure its value.

    Niell Blomkaff is not revolutionizing the world, but he never said he was going to.

    Nonetheless – James Cameron is saying he will. And it’s an interesting convergence that in 1 week District 9 was introduced the Avatar trailer was released to mostly underwhelming response.

    I’m sure James Cameron isn’t too worried, b/c it all comes down to revenue & franchising. That’s the George Lucas model, btw.

    We’re just saying it’s nice to see something alot closer to the first Alien film, instead.

    Because you’re right – it’s like comparing apples to blue elves.
    Apples are real. Blue elves – no matter how detailed you make them on an uber-humongo screen – will NEVER be.

  11. To go back to your original comment, Ken J:

    You’re right. We shouldn’t start a war btw the two movies. We were just having a discussion – so we heard your point, and we disagreed w/ it. Please hear ours, b/c essentially we have something in common. We’re all fans.

    And really, Sci fi and film fans should rejoice that we’re living in a time when so many great movies are coming out.

    I’ll settle this by saying I will inevitably see Avatar – eventually. It looks to me like that roller coaster I’ll eventually get in line to ride, if I ever get the time.

    I remember reading another article saying James Cameron should just shut up about Avatar until it comes out. I think I’d agree with that b/c , as hype machines go – I trust him to make an enjoyable movie but early word is that its preachy. After all, Dances With Wolves totally was and that’s exactly what Cameron’s comparing it to so – right NOW we have no reason to doubt it will be.

    I reserve my right to be in the “guilty til proven innocent” camp w/ Avatar, b/c he’s set it up to be this revolutionary cinematic experience. Captain EO was, too – but as w/ all technical feats, w/out substance they eventually wear thin.

    Here’s to hoping Avatar has much more substance than this first teaser trailer has led us to believe. I know many people believe in it already – and that’s fine. All I can say is, I’ll believe it when I see it.

    It’ll be interesting – if these films win any awards, will Niell Blomkaff dedicate his to the people of South Africa, and James Cameron to the Na’vi people, whose struggle he labored so long to capture on film?

    I’m just sayin’. (That’s a discussion point, not a flame.)

  12. Django

    Where’s I got frustrated and gave in to the negativity, you remain calm and logical and made a great point.

    You are a better man and I applaud you :)

    Ken J, don’t take this as an “attack” lol because that’s not what we’re trying to do.

  13. 2.5 million prawns is A lot. larger than any standing army around.
    To give you an idea of how a population of 2.5 million prawns would actually effect the city, put it in perspective: in 1991 (a middle point between when they landed and today), the population of Johannesburg was 712,507 people. Also keep these figures in mind when thinking about how on earth would South Africa take care of this situation? Imagine if a million clueless and hostile prawns were resettled in your city.
    Ironically, evicting them from the slum to an actual camp, was humane. Thats how international organizations deal with dislocated civilians and refugees…setting up camps so there can be some order. You cant just have million confused aliens (who may or may not eat you/spread some crazy alien virus/OD on catfood) to just meander around a city.

    Now, imagine if they all want to just leave..do they need to take over the world? If the MNU is keeping them down, do they need to defeat the entire world? No, they would only need to either: Hold off the MNU by securing their area, till everyone could get on the ship or hold off the MNU long enough for then to transmit their issues over radio, phone, whatever to the rest of the world, and get international involvement. Which also begs the question: Where is the UN? The scientific community? The rest of the world? in all this.

    I just could not get sucked into the movie, because it seemed (the actions, motives, ect) seemed too unrealistic. I need my movies to create a world where I can get into the story, this movie failed at that.

    Another problem: The allegory just didnt work. It was basically an allegory for District 6. I get that…but then what is it saying about people? South African Blacks were not “worker drones”. They were people, like me or you. That’s why you can have empathy with them.
    If the prawns were a “worker class” that was in fact breed and controlled by a higher class, than how much different is their society than the apartide governments of old? Keep in mind, even us savage humans have outgrown (at least in most of the world) slavery. In fact, how much different would the average prawn then be, compared to say an organutan?

    There are a lot of points you could debate
    So instead of arguing about the writing, how about ask:

    Given what we know, how were the actions of the humans not justifiable?

    Did you find the way humans (especially governments) responded to their situation realistic?

    Given what we know, do the actions of the prawns in general make sense? (if their were smart prawns, like chris, for example, and not just all drones)?

    Over a long term, if given complete human and civil rights, would the prawns become a danger to humanity? Say, if they breed without control.

  14. James – navigating your jumps btw/ prawns & humans, I’ll attempt a response.

    - South Africans blacks are not worker drones. Prawns were aimless b/c they’re like insects, cut off from the queen bee or ant, etc. I’m assuming. In the real world, the Nigerian refugees are primarily working class. They’re not the elite or aristocracy. Those folks have either relocated or are generating the genocide that is creating this whole situation in the first place.

    To take a step back from the movie’s plot & whether people “liked it” or not. My understanding was that it uniquely portrayed neither species as dignified.

    We’re never told why Christopher can’t return to his world, but if we follow the allegory – it would mean that there is some sort of genocide taking place on their home soil.

    So the film is about genocide, and tackles it from a realistic human, real world scenario – blending the real world effects of genocide on surrounding cultures w/ it’s science fiction premise.

    If that makes you uncomfortable – it should. THAT’s the point of Disctrict 9.

    When’s the last time science fiction hit so close to home that it made you feel that way?
    I’m not talking horror movies. I’m talking horror REALITIES.

  15. James, good questions, sucks that you couldn’t get into it. It wasn’t spoonfed like we discussed and I think that’s a good thing. Makes you think more.

    But to answer your questions:

    The HUMAN ACTIONS were realistic but who are we to say they were “justifiable”? Very few ppl make those kinds of decisions (to contain the aliens, etc) and the rest of the country just follows orders. Not sure what you’re asking here.

    The way GOVERNMENTS responded was REALISTIC and BELIEVABLE. They do the same thing to humans (refugee camps, concentration camps, etc.) so why wouldn’t they do that with aliens?

    The ACTIONS OF THE PRAWNS were realistic. There’s an interview with Neil where he talks about the prawns and their behavior. They’re much like hive based insects (ants) where there’s a queen, a “ruling” class (the smart prawns) and then the “worker class”. Most of the prawns who were acting dumb were the working class. Chris was one of the “ruling” class; smart, educated, etc. We obviously never got to see the queen.

    The prawns could potentially become a threat to humanity but they were trying to leave. The humans were the ones keeping them here to do research on their weapons which is also very believable

  16. “The prawns could potentially become a threat to humanity but they were trying to leave. The humans were the ones keeping them here”

    See, thats something that was never actually established in the movie. What did the “humans” (in quotes, as it would only pertain to south africa or the MNU, no other entities are mentioned) actually know? All information given would point that nobody knew that the aliens could leave.

  17. James you’re right but it was also established that MNU wanted the alien weapons. It’s not that far of a stretch to say they were doing whatever they could not to let the aliens leave. Moving the “concentration” camp to another location (away from the mother ship) pretty much says that they wanted to keep them away from their own escape plan (the ship).

    Furthermore, at the end of the movie they were shooting down the commander ship based on orders. Orders that were meant to keep the aliens on earth.

  18. Just FYI, I brought up the whole District 9 thing not as an actual criticism of the movie just to mock the arguments about how Avatar, which is set in the future, “can’t happen” while a movie set in a time that has already passed, “can”…

    To me, there’s nothing wrong with the timeline with District 9, it is a hypothetical situation afterall. One of my favorite games was Operation Flashpoint which actually takes place in a hypothetical past. I had no problem with that, but was justmaking the joke that if you can say, for sure, that Avatar can’t happen in the future, then I can make that argument about District 9. But apparently, it’s ok for you to act as if you can predict the future but not ok for me to cite history since it’s not a praise of District 9… lol

    That’s what I find kind of funny, it reminds me of when the trailer for Transformers 2 was being criticized. Matt Keith brought up some criticisms of the first Transformers, and criticized some of the jokes made in the Transformers 2 trailer. Despite the fact that he was a FAN or Transformers and LOOKED FORWARD to seeing Transformers 2, some of you fanboys gave him crap for it. Seriously, are we not allowed to point out things that we didn’t like about something? Does it HAVE to be all praise and “it’s the best movie in the world!” coming out of us? Come on, if you can’t take criticism, maybe going to blog sites isn’t the best thing to do.

    Yes, even fans might have criticisms of the movie, newsflash.

    @James

    I agree that there’s no way in hell in real life or in the movie world that 2.5 million aliens would be allowed to just fully integrate into our population. Same with any large group of refugees. In an ideal world, anyone could come into the country, and we all hold hands and live in a peaceful and prosperous world, but in real life, maintaining a functioning government and the economy is a balancing game, and no government in the world can simply just take in 2.5 million refugees and expect to maintain that balance, especially not Jo-berg with their small population and already weak government.

    I also agree that the absence of the international community was probably the biggest thing that didn’t make sense about the movie, but that would have changed the whole tone of the movie and that’s why the filmmaker left it out.

    But to me, part of the thing that made this movie enjoyable was that it was unique in this perspective.

    But I understand why you didn’t enjoy it, the politics of it all is questionable. But I just enjoyed it for the novelty of the new approach to the sci-fi genre.

  19. this is some stupid stuff ya its confusing why thy came here or why did not kill us or leave here might be some answear 1.they might have came here cause (duh) they were the last of there kind and they were dieing 2. they didnt kill us cause they didnt want to die out or make war with already war if any one gets this they been researching about this movie before it came out by the movie should have got 500 million its like fricking awesome

  20. KEN J

    You are impossible. I’ve never said Avatar would never happen, I said D9 is more likely to happen. Why is that so hard to understand and accept?

    And good job bringing up a thread that happened months ago, shows me that you really do care :)

  21. I remember humorous things. Thanks for the good times. :-) Poor poor Matt Keith was getting crap even though he liked the first one, just because he wasn’t all on his knees bowing to everything Transformers, lol. And seriously, what a sad sad thing to be a fanboy of… Brought so many laughs to my life… Good times…

  22. Before I went to see “Inglorious Basterds” today I walked into the “District 9″ screening at my local “Pasadena Theatre”. Nice to see the theatre was pretty packed for a 2;35 screening.
    (Go D9!!!)

    Seeing the few minutes I did see again, I can’t wait for this on dvd!!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. I actually like this movie more, after arguing about it.
    The arguments are fun. I think that would be the best thing about the film

  24. “It’s not that far of a stretch to say…”

    I think that is why it would seem some people saw different movies. The film left a lot to fill in yourself, and make assumptions. If you make different assumptions or interpret things in a different way, it completely changes the context.

  25. James

    True and nothing wrong with whatever way ppl interpret it but I would hope these same ppl would be open to other possibilities. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem so and their interpretation of an ambiguous event/situation becomes the only one that could be true. I think that’s the problem I’m having with the so called “plot holes”.

    Open your mind and you’ll enjoy life a lot more.

  26. I’m willing to bargain that when first time director Niell Blomkaff concieved and produced District 9, it was a passion project that – at most – he imagined touring the international indie circuit, maybe carving a little spot for him in underground circles.

    The fact that so many people are discussing it in sci fi terms, completely ignoring the reality of a South African FX artist coming up with an allegorical reaction to the realities of the refugee situation down there is – in my eyes – illustrative of the disconnect many sci fi fans have to planet we’re currently living on.

    Bring on the flak. I’m ready for you. My basic point is – I think the world isn’t even quite ready for the actual message this movie was delivering, and instead everyone is talking about the action, fx, or plot holes – for what it essentially an exercise in digitally augmented documentary footage, which accidentally made it undeniably more marketable and – accessible – accessible.

  27. that should’ve read

    I don’t know why it copied & pasted that twice.

  28. Yes Django, we’re all well aware that it is a message movie. What do you want us to discuss? How we’re going to organize and go there and make the refugee situation magically disappear with some magical words? Or how we should pour money over there so that it can be misused?

    Nah, talking about the movie, its strengths and its plot holes is more fun…

  29. @ Ken J

    I actually submitted a qestion to Blomkamp about whether or not he’s felt any resistance from viewers in regards to the film’s message rather than it’s cinematic aspects. Still waiting to hear back on that…

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