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.
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.
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.