Blair Witch Meets Alien Prawns

On the weekend I watched District 9. In terms of pre-release buzz, creative marketing and a smallish budget ($30 million), it’s this summer’s “Blair Witch Project”. I’m still trying to reconcile how I feel about the movie, and how much I actually enjoyed it.

It’s a surprisingly difficult movie to categorize. It’s certainly a science-fiction movie. But it’s also, at various times, an obvious allegory for South African apartheid, a thriller, an action movie and, oddly, kind of a buddy flick. Director Neill Blomkamp (born in Johannesburg, but attended the Vancouver Film School and is still based here) draws on a lot of techniques from television news and documentaries. The first third of the film is constructed out of interviews and seen through the eyes of a camera crew following around the protagonist.

This technique, combined with effective CG work and naturalistic setting–the film was shot in Johannesburg’s sprawling slums, make for a really immersive experience. There’s a little of TV’s Battlestar Galactica in District 9, as well as some Starship Troopers and a dash of Hotel Rwanda.

The movie is Blomkamp’s and lead actor Sharlto Copley’s first feature-length film, and you feel that occasionally. The performances and writing are a bit broad in places, a bit simple. For example, I liked the way the humans referred to the immigrant aliens as ‘prawns’, with the same nonchalance that previous generations of white South Africans called blacks ‘kaffirs’. Yet the metaphor becomes overused and trite by the film’s climax. The whole film is a bit uneven–nuanced and clever one minute, clunky and obvious the next.

Still, it’s the most surprising and original film I’ve seen in months, and it has smart things to teach us about apartheid and the developing world. I’d definitely recommend it.


  1. I’m not sure how much the film was supposed to evoke themes of Apartheid so much as the modern-day refugee crisis in South Africa that has sparked xenophobia and violence against those fleeing war and economic collapse. Definitely, both themes are present.

  2. A key aspect of Apartheid was forcing blacks into the townships that have since expanded into these vast shanty towns. That resettlement tactic felt very present in this movie.

  3. Interesting comment about it feeling like a “buddy movie” at times, as I thought the last third of the film was a bit like the plot of Blood Diamond. Also, I thought it was interesting that the humans appeared to have developed a bilingual understanding of the aliens’ language. They did not have translators, but the aliens were speaking their own language throughout the film, understanding English but not speaking it. It was refreshing to see this instead of other techniques, like translators, or machine translators, or everyone speaking the same language.

  4. Interestingly Cape Town used to have a “District 6” which had a vibrant community and cultural life. The Government decided to destroy it and over time demolished the entire area moving all the residents out to the Windswept Cape Flats and townships.
    The sins of apartheid are many indeed.

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