The Visual Subtleties of District 9

When District 9 came out last summer in California I was a little afraid to see it. Not because I was afraid it would be bad or because I wasn’t interested in the subject matter, but because I thought it would break my heart. What I knew of the premise — aliens stranded in Johannesburg and mistreated and discriminated against — just seemed too depressing.

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A few weeks ago I finally saw the film and I have no idea why I waited so long.     Never mind that the nuanced story was everything Avatar should have been and that it ends on a hopeful note. What was really interesting to me was the quality of the visual story telling. It’s a classic example of the old filmmakers’ (and writers’) meme: Show, don’t tell.   

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Director and screenwriter Neill Blomkamp trusts the intelligence of his audience. He avoids spoon feeding the audience exposition and, instead, he loads the film with visual cues. Considering that the film contains documentary style interviews it must have been tempting to have them over explain the story. A good example of Blomkamp’s “less is more” approach is the portrayal of black South Africans in this alternate universe. It’s implied that — whilst the whites still seem to be running the show — black citizens have fared better in this version of the world. By casting black actors as military officers and bureaucrats the audience can draw its own conclusion that blacks rose faster due the presence of an alien underclass.

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Most touching, perhaps, is the ending. For those who have yet to see it I won’t entirely spoil it, but Wickes, the main human character, disappears. The director uses strong visual cues to imply what happened to Wickes. In just a few shots he leaves us with both hope for the characters and…for a sequel.  

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