District 9: When aliens don’t land in New York…

Re-watching Neill Blomkamp’s ‘District 9’ helped show me how its unique setting shapes the movie’s every aspect.

‘District 9’ is an alien invasion film with some fundamental deviations from the norm. For starters, it’s shot in a mockumentary, shaky cam style. This may not seem that unusual today but upon the film’s release in 2009, it certainly was. More importantly, it isn’t set in the U.S; the aliens haven’t landed in New York or California; they steered well clear of the Arctic Circle and they haven’t even considered little old England. These aliens pitched up – be it through choice, or more likely, a forced deferral of choice – in Johannesburg, South Africa. Why is this location so important? Well, it helps to inform just about every aspect of this severely underrated and overlooked gem. 

The aliens in ‘District 9’ pose little threat. In fact, once access to their ship is gained, the Johannesburg elite are quick to place them into ‘temporary’ accommodation at ground level; a camp which quickly morphs into a favela-esque prison – a military ghetto, rife with crime and poverty. 

Even within this ghetto, a hierarchy quickly forms, with the aliens propping up it’s foundations. Warlords loom above them in the pecking order, engaging in interspecies prostitution and the exploitation of their weapons technology. As an increasing amount of money is spent, not on improving the camp, but keeping the camp and its inhabitants separate from the rest of South Africa, less money becomes available to the indigenous population, leading to racial hatred between the human and alien species. This hatred is one that isn’t too dissimilar to that of apartheid South Africa. 

Copyright TriStar Pictures

The movie’s title itself is a direct reference to District Six, a former residential area of Cape Town which saw over 60,000 of its black citizens forcibly removed upon the apartheid government declaring District Six a whites-only area. Similarly, the aliens in ‘District 9’ are served eviction notices, giving them 24 hours to prepare before being strong-armed into relocation themselves – somewhere far away from the human population in Johannesburg. 

So what does this all amount to? Am I saying that ‘District 9’ is a flawless masterpiece of the sci-fi genre and should be heralded as such? No, not at all. It has its problems, just like nearly any other film. What it had 10 years ago, and still possesses today, is a unique take on an otherwise saturated genre and an ability to lace excellent social commentary with genuinely heartfelt storytelling and character development. Check it out.


Featured Image Copyright Letterboxd.

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