The District 9 Debate: Excellent Film… Or Overrated?

Published 6 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]


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…


…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.

Continue reading The District 9 Debate

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  1. @Ken

    I hope you’re comfy in your couch chair, and that you can get your video games delivered to you along with your pizza. Wouldn’t want to disturb your comfortable viewpoint on all this.

    I’ll be working w/ some refugee populations here in the states, reuniting them with their families, if you care to hang out sometime. But come to think of it, it’s hard work – so maybe you’d just get in the way.

    Just razzin’ ya. 😉

    @Kofi –

    That’s great. From interviews he seems like a pretty approachable, accessible guy.

    When I mention to people who didn’t necessarily like the presentation of the movie – that he interviewed locals about their reactions to the it adds an interesting dimension and usually generates further discussion.

    It’s almost like if it could have been mentioned at the end of the film, it would’ve sent people out of the theatre with their heads spinning (moreso than they already were).

    Perhaps this will come up again as they prepare the dvd (which will likely include “Alive in Jo’Burg”, etc.).

  2. This film was inspiring and innovative. I rarely go to movies unless I see something that may be extraordinary to watch. I think that the ending of this film will spur possible sequels. Unlike some sci-film, besides the visuals, the film had a stong story. Cant wait for District 10!

  3. The alien/refugee analogy was a real roadblock for me in this movie because the arrival of a million aliens on this planet would just not be met with the typical refugee response by any stretch of the imagination. I finding comments in various forums to the effect of, “this is how we would really react to aliens,” just ridiculous. Many people are largely desensitized toward human refugees but not toward ETs.

    Once I can get past that, though, what I find particularly striking is portrait of Joburg drawn through the lens of the Afrikaner everyman, Wikus. I think Blomkamp has taken the old-as-dirt parable of walking a mile in the other’s boots and clothed it very well in a contempory, very relevant story.

  4. Here’s something that might interest all of you. I decided to see this at a double screen Drive-In. The set up was ideal. Driving the right vehicle you could watch either set of movies. The sound came over F.M. so that wasn’t an issue and both sides had arguably entertaining movies. One side had “Inglorious Basterds” and “Rise of Cobra” the other “District 9″ and “Hangover.” All in all 4 entertaining movies. Now on Fri. and Sat. nights the first movie is replayed. But unlike what normally happens the 2ND screen, “Inglorious Basterds” didn’t have to replay the first movie. Not one vehicle stayed to see the first movie again. Not one. Fully one third of the vehicles stayed through the entire second showing of “District 9.”

    @ Kofi: He He, Welcome to my world.

  5. @Samlet

    The movie never said that South Africa adapted the refugee protocol from the get go. The movie did touch upon the chaos and confusion that ensued after the aliens came and did not leave. No one knew what to do. I think that’s why they treated them as refugees…that’s pretty much what they are, except from a different planet. How do you know that they “would just not be met with typical refugee response”? The situation called for such a response. Furthermore, it’s not like the aliens made contact in a graceful way, stepped down from their UFO’s, etc. The situation in D9 called for quick action (the aliens were dying) and that’s what the government did.

  6. @ogb

    I assume you mean me. I think the movie did establish that SA fell right into the refugee protocol. The whole set-up at the beginning with “The eyes of the world were on us…” and the helicopters taking the prawns off and the humanitarian aid retrospective rhetoric. I don’t deny that the refugee crisis analogy works on the initial humanitarian response level. What I do have trouble accepting is that this “refugee crisis” would play out as what has quite horribly become the standard long-term refugee/concentration camp phenomenon. The film established that the arrival of these ETs was received world-wide as an isolated South African problem. I think that’s completely unbelievable. It would not matter whether first contact with an alien species came from a polished, poised starship crew or a bunch of desperate, starving victims. South Africa would not keep them. The ship would be cleaned up and probably dismantled. The whole thig would be a international scientific hotbed for far more than 20-30 years. A million human refugees can remain an isolated SA problem indefinitely. Human refugees have been around for centuries. But a million ETs is a huge, novel occurance.

    No one may have known what to do, no one does when confronted with a new experience, but humans have no lack of imagination and curiousity, not to mention quite a few people who have been waiting for something, anything, like this for a hundred years. I do not buy the idea that first contact would have disappeared into overwhelming apathy. Heck, the possibility that we found microorganisms on Mars excited lots of people, and you’re asking me to believe that encountering representatives of a full-blown, technologically advanced species able to communicate comprehensibly in any way became old hat in a mere couple of decades? Nuts.

  7. You’re digging a bit deep there not to like this movie.

    Part of the message in this movie is meant to show us a mirror and say “take a look at yourselves” You’re giving humanity too much credit.

    It’s not like everyone wanted to keep them here, create horrible conditions, etc. It was the GOVERNMENT. In the midst of chaos today is it that hard to imagine government pulling something likes? Keep the aliens here to do research on how their weapons and technology work? NO NO NO.

    Scientists and other “eager” humans, such as myself, have VERY LITTLE say in these matters, ESPECIALLY in SOUTH AFRICA. Americans enjoy a lot of freedom that other countries don’t have. I grew up in a third world country and can tell you that ppl would be killed if they criticise the government like Americas do. Point is, the South Africa is not as “liberal” as America and if they wanted to keep the aliens here, they would.

    And do you really think that if an alien ship appeared over United States, the world would come together, put aside their wars and conflicts and happily join forces to research and help these beings. WAKE UP! An alien ship lands over US, we’ll do anything possible to keep it here and keep others away. Money, power, etc. will drive the US government’s decisions/policies regarding the aliens.

  8. Git ‘im Ogb! You go n’ gitt’em!


  9. If an alien ship the size of the one in D9 landed over the US, our military would kick everyone out and setup a 100 mile secure perimeter…
    Once the people were out of the way they would venture inside in full bio hazard gear, ready to shoot at any moment. The surviving Prawns would be taken to an undergorund base and held there. (IMO)

    If the situation in D9 actually took place in South Africa, the entire Nation would be quarantined from the rest of the world. No more flights in or out and borders would be restricted.
    The Prawns would be considered a bio hazard. Until they studied them for disease,,, The UN would step in and take the place of the MNU.

    You can pull apart District 9 for the holes in protocol but overall its not about the ship or technology. Its about redemption…

  10. I do like this movie very much (see above). No, I don’t think the alien ship would magically politically unite the world if it had come to a stop in the U.S. I do say S.A. would not have the power to keep the aliens to itself whether or not it had the political will to do so. Nor would the rest of the world virtually ignore them wherever they arrived.

    This is actually very much a side note to what I do like about the movie, which is that it DOES present an interesting mirror as you say. It works very well as a story of personal transformation 😀 and social commentary even if the surrounding representation of social, cultural, and political reality is flawed. The development of the POV character, Wikus, is the central message. It is his perceptions that drive the story as he is evicted from his native world of unquestioned, easy superiority into the world of the despised other and forced to question what he has never even considered open to question. This is a story told for thousands of years, ever since hominids began developing the incredibly difficult concept that one need not and should not automatically kill the stranger, but very well told by Blomkamp in a highly relevant and inspirational fashion.

  11. I absolutely loved this film. Definitely not the best sci-fi movie ever and not even the best of this generation, but it is a great movie.

    I just think people should learn to enjoy a film for exactly what it is instead of trying to dissect every scene. I don’t think this movie has anything to do with hidden messages or bashing big companies. I think it is a sci-fi film for adults set in South Africa directed by a South African Special FX artist. BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT IT IS!

    It is a film made by CG expert/mech lover who made the movie he wanted to see in a setting he is familiar with. It is meant to be funny and entertaining while at the same time delivering an adult story with adult content.

    Love it or hate it everyone on a website like this should respect Niell Blomkamp for making a movie that he wants without fear of ratings or box office results. District 9 is the kind of movie we need more of; a movie with balls. More importantly a director with balls.

    There are too many films that try to cater to every demographic; which is impossible to me. I think most of the great films of this generation have been rated R and have not been afraid to show violence like it is or how humans really behave behind closed doors.

    Sorry for getting off topic but i think that this should be discussed with films like District 9.

    So try getting off the soap box and realize not every film has some second meaning or a hole-free script. Enjoy the movi for what it is.

  12. the film was great…
    if you cant figure out the message really..?
    just take that message and make an amazing sci fi movie around it. and thats what d9 is.

    i was all tense up with anger and fear as they were testing the weapons and then making him shot the prawn!.. great

    and i kinda teared up too when he told him to run.. run to his boy..

    i loved it.
    still holding my number 1 this year. bastards is my number 2… drag me to hell is 3… wolverine is -100

  13. +1 on Drag me to Hell being in the top 5 this year.

    There were definitely some emotional scenes. I laughed when he launched the pig through a wall using the gravity gun and the whole cat food thing. I also laughed a bit during “THE OFFICE” scenes in the beginning. I choked up a bit when Chris and his boy reunited. I felt some anger after what they did with the weapons testing.

    That’s how I know it’s a good movie :)

  14. @kofi

    Definitely keep up updated on if you get a response. It would be interesting to hear what he had to say about it. :-)

  15. “The Prawns would be considered a bio hazard. Until they studied them for disease,”

    That is a good point. Could you imagine the Possibility of alien bacteria or virus(on us or them)?

    On a side note.
    What was up with the big bug things? Remember in the “cock fighting” scene.
    What was that about?

  16. What’s the deal with the little “bug” things in the “cok fight scene”?

  17. You didn’t even address what hurt this film for me. Ya, sure, a bunch of tech monkeys did an excellent job with thirty million dollars, but what about, as you said, the classic aspects of filmaking? Like, you know, character? The main character is inconsistent, overacted (he’s playing him as Michael Scott in one scene, Bruce Willis the next)and ultimately incomprehensible. Without a believable, relateable main character, the films essentially an exhibition for CGI.

  18. @Jake Mulligan

    I’m sorry, Jake, I didn’t get that, and Kofi did discuss Wikus quite a bit. Did you miss that there’s 3 pages to this review?

    Regardless, Copley did a good job portraying Wikus, and I thought he was entirely believable, first as a completely reflexive bigot (who even falls back on that when he’s seeking shelter from Chris), but then growing. Damn… at work and out of time… more later.

  19. Loved this film and thought it one of the more provocative that I’ve seen in years. What the main character goes through even after being betrayed on a massive scale was agonizing to watch –esp. when reaching out to hie father-in-law and facing vivisection when he became an asset to the munitions makers. An awful view of humanity — unfortunately spot-on. Why would we assume the prawns were primitive when they were space travelers? Why all the munitions?

    I was left with lots of questions. Where were they from? Did their home planet become destroyed — I think Chris intimates this — so where was he going that he could return in 3 years and rescue his people and his new “pseudo-prawn” friend?
    Why were the aliens themselves unable to use their own weapons? Someone mentioned that they were left without their “queen” I guess I missed that. How did they reproduce? Where was the “mom” of Chris’ son? Where did the “alien technology” they were sifting thru the trash to find coming from? Was the ship being ransacked?

    I do hope there is a sequel. I find I am spending a lot of time thinking about this film, which was a great combination of wry dark humor, razor-sharp views of the best and worst of humanity, great effects, and a feel-good ending. And, let’s face it — the cutest baby alien seen in many a year.

  20. @Jeannie

    Great comment – for me the movie was all about the main character’s transformation and how a boring, normal person would react in this situation. We saw most of it through his eyes, and guess what? Because HE didn’t have the answers to all these “plot holes” neither did WE. It helped us experience what he went through only knowing about as much as he did.


  21. Some friends and I discussed this movie & came to the conclusion that it would have been BETTER if the prawns were delicious and they were trying to save their lives from being dinner.

  22. I think what people forget is that what humanity DOESN’T know about the Prawns is actually a part of the premise. The imposition of authority over something we are ignorant of.

  23. “”I keep reading that people are pissed-off about the (again, paraphrasing) ‘Swiss-cheese plot’ of District 9:
    They never say where the aliens come from!
    They never say why they came!
    They build it up and then nothing happens, that alien just leaves and we don’t know what happens!
    Why didn’t the Aliens just gang up and kill everybody and conquer District 9 if they were stronger!

    ok first of all i LOVED the movie, it was amazing but,
    after reading this i tought, was I the only one who got it???
    sure the answers are not especifically explained or spoon fed to us but, i thought it was about making your own conclusions, But i dont know i think there is enough info on the movie and you come up with your own explanation, ok so:
    They never say where the aliens come from:
    well noone knows where Alien comes from or predator, it was never an issue before with other movies why would it be an issue now?
    They never say why they came:
    i figure out that they were going through space and for some reason ran out of fuel and food, the proof, they were starving when they came out and it took 20 years for Christopher to create new fuel, they landed here because it was the closest planet.
    Why didn’t the Aliens just gang up and kill everybody and conquer District 9 if they were stronger!:
    this one i also thought about, the aliens were about to die when they arrive. when humans open the ship, they were given food and “houses” for the to live in, seriously if someone is helping you when you need help the most are you gonna start killing everybody when there are problems? i think the aliens were angry at their situation, but at the same time they had nowhere to go, also they died of gunshots from our guns, so they would risk dying. humans and aliens didnt get along, but the aliens were just trying to make the best of it.

  24. Also, i want to clarify that i wrote my post because i went with my sister to see the movie, and when she came out, she was like: why didnt the aliens use the guns, why did they let the humans treat them like that? why this and that, but i also wanted to point out to the ones who hate it, instead of just asking why maybe you can think of the answer by analyzing what you just saw. And thats what i did, i didn’t really made up all the stuff i wrote, is not like i had to imagine all the answers i wrote, i just sat down and thought about what i just saw and what could have happened and made the connections myself,
    Honestly after i came out of the movie, i did not think it had ONE plot hole, i didnt see any of those only until i started to read comments about it. i dont know, this movie is made from the point of view of the humans, and is shot documentary style, How was everyone in the movie supposed to know all these questions? if this movie happened in real life, would you expect someone to appear on tv and start explaining every single detail? this is the exact thing that people complained about cloverfield, and although i really Dont like the movie because of the shaky camera, i thought it was obvious that these two movies are made from our point of view, only what we can see is what we really know,

  25. I’m in agreement with those who found the protagonist completely uninteresting nor compelling. We walked out about an hour into it. But yeah, nice CGI…

  26. The script was riddled with cliches, the story lazily predictable, the characters lame and 2-dimensional… it was nothing we haven't seen before, just packaged differently. The packaging is impressive, but you open the box — nothing. Give it a rest fanboys — the movie stinks.

  27. The script was riddled with cliches, the story lazily predictable, the characters lame and 2-dimensional… it was nothing we haven't seen before, just packaged differently. The packaging is impressive, but you open the box — nothing. Give it a rest fanboys — the movie stinks.

  28. I Love how those who out-of-their-minds love D9 assume that those who dislike for what ever reason dont really understand it, cant grasp its social relevance. The message was pretty thin and the script relied on heavy action sequences. Everybody got the film, everybody, no high concepts, no need for deep contemplation.