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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

‘District 9’: The Sci-Fi Thriller That Became an Oscar Anomaly

The near century-long tradition of honoring the best in film through the Oscars has had its fair share of positives and drawbacks. Although the Oscars present themselves as a prestigious ceremony to honor the best in film for the year in question, the politics in Hollywood have often become the major players surrounding the Oscars. Achievements are awarded based on the opinion of a select group of voters, oftentimes people closely tied to the filmmaking and Hollywood business.

Keeping the voting process limited to this group of people is grounds for the “Oscar culture” to arise, as certain films, actors, and even awards have a narrative surrounding their existence. It’s why “Oscar bait” is such a popular term or why Meryl Streep being nominated for an Oscar is prime pickings for memes. The Oscars is a ceremony specifically for an exclusive club and much like other clubs, the culture within dictates a good chunk of what may or may not be honored.

We also see this with the genre of films typically either nominated or expected for a nomination. Drama is an Oscar favorite, preferably taking place in a historical fiction; and if the subject of the film revolves around the world of filmmaking and Hollywood, all the better! Academy voters have a tendency to stick to stories they may call relatable to their current life and situation, so the chance of a narrative taking bold risks with characters, story, setting, and filmmaking techniques feels lacking if it results in a product too outside the culture of the Oscar club.

But as years pass and societal norms continue to evolve with the start of new trends and movements, Oscar culture has been playing the race slow and steady, much to the chagrin of a public eager for something new. This eagerness turned to frustration in 2009 when one of the most important and groundbreaking blockbusters of all time, The Dark Knight, failed to make it into the final 5 films to be nominated for Best Picture, being dubbed a massive snub in the tail end of a decade that awarded The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King the same honor.

The win for LOTR was certainly notable for being the first fantasy film to win Best Picture and it was indicative of Oscar culture bending its own rules to allow Peter Jackson’s cinematic achievement to receive accolades for its trouble. The Dark Knight’s snub proved that Oscar culture was a tough nut to crack, but that nut cracked just a bit when the Academy decided to up the Best Picture nominee list to 10 films for the first time since 1944. Combined with the evolution of film since 44, this allowed for the chance of a greater variety of films to be nominated for the big one.

Yet somehow, the surprise Oscar success of Neil Blomkamp’s alien sci-fi thriller, District 9, is still something equally fascinating and baffling.

Sure, it didn’t go home with any one of the four Oscars it was nominated for, but among those four, it nabbed a Best Picture nomination in a field of films from Oscar heavyweights like James Cameron, the Coen Brothers, and Kathryn Bigelow, the latter of whom went home with both Best Picture and Best Director for The Hurt Locker. But its string of losses may be ultimately irrelevant as the prospect for a film like District 9 to receive heavy Oscar attention is something that still feels mind-blowing to this day.

District 9 may have a name like Peter Jackson attached as a producer to get people’s attention, but this practice may only prove to be partially successful, especially if the film in question does not resonate with audiences in the way it intends to. But District 9 proved effective in connecting with audiences, earning over $200 million at the box office and of course becoming the sleeper hit of Oscar season.

All of this for a gory political thriller with aliens.

It’s certainly not a story that would seem appealing to Oscar voters on the surface, focusing on a human being infected with a strange alien liquid that is slowly turning him into one of the aliens confined to a living space entitled ‘District 9’ as their spaceship looms over Johannesburg, South Africa. The spaceship has been stranded on Earth for twenty years and during that time, the aliens (commonly known as prawns) experience a high degree of discrimination from humans segregating themselves from them and forcibly placing them in dire living conditions.

In order to ground the story in a reality almost identical to our own, District 9 is partially filmed through the use of the found-footage/documentary format, compiling tons of fictional interviews, news reports, and “lost” footage of the characters in the story. In fact, the first act of the film is done almost entirely from this perspective, making the audience envision themselves watching classified footage of real people cruelly mistreating aliens as if it were just another day. Blomkamp’s alien thriller eases us in by watching sudden home evictions and militarized forces shooting aliens with little-to-no provocation.

Just through this alone, District 9 strays away from the films prevalent in Oscar culture in a manner that not even the rare blockbuster nominee had dared go down so boldly. Films like Return of the King, The Dark Knight, Titanic, and that year’s Avatar were slightly left-of-center from the usual Oscar fare, but their method of winning over voters came through the large-scale technical mastery of the filmmaking. All these films felt like sprawling epics that took advantage of the medium to truly break new ground and District 9 was tiny by comparison in both budget and scale.

At most, District 9 felt like an alien thriller that “elevated” the genre by the social awareness dripping from each page of the screenplay. Heavily inspired by the events of apartheid in Africa, Blomkamp created a sci-fi story that mirrored reality in ways that can still be applicable in today’s social climate. But the film’s manner of exploring themes of racism and xenophobia were unrestrained and brutal and the use of the documentary style only added to the dirty atmosphere of the film. Even when the film begins to adopt a traditional filmmaking style in its second half, it does not hesitate in being distasteful to prove a point.

The ugliness of the subject matter combined with the grit of the doc-style filmmaking makes District 9 feel like a film that was both timely in 2009, yet difficult to define with its story. While it goes for broke in exploring issues that have affected people on a global scale, Blomkamp’s thriller is mostly a personal story adjusted for a mainstream audience. There is an obvious benefit to having a large audience for the film, but the specificity of Blomkamp’s story and its blend of social issues and sci-fi tropes results in a final product that does not remotely resemble the core values of Oscar culture.

This is more than the Oscars accepting District 9 to promote a #woke agenda. Oscar culture certainly permits members to keep up a socially aware personality for the media, but District 9’s unrestrained approach to presenting xenophobia and the dangers of government dependence feels like something that is perhaps too blunt or aggressive for the Academy. The Oscars have welcomed films with tough subject matters before, but presenting a similar issue under the guise of a documentary-style sci-fi flick is something almost completely out of the Oscar wheelhouse. It may seem silly to suggest that Oscar voters can be this petty and unaccepting of something different, but if we’ve learned anything about the Oscar snubs of recent films like Uncut Gems, The Farewell, Hustlers, and the acting nominations for the Parasite cast, it’s that Oscar culture usually wins over open-mindedness. 

But District 9 overcame Oscar culture in order to become a part of the conversation. Furthermore, it followed its own rules to make a name for itself with a unique marketing campaign that took advantage of the rise of the internet. Flooding the public conscious with real-life posters of the alien warning signs in the film, a phone number for people to report “alien” activity, and websites created to build on the lore of the film, the marketing team for District 9 treated the trends of the time as an actual possibility for a larger market rather than a fad.

This willingness to dive into internet culture could be argued as a reason for the Academy accepting District 9 as a legitimate Oscar contender, but its inclusion remains pleasantly baffling even today. The Best Picture lineup increase could’ve been used to help promote an even larger selection of “Oscar bait” films, but the Academy’s desire to keep itself fresh and relevant for the burgeoning internet era ultimately resulted in District 9 becoming one of the most unlikely Oscar success stories of our time. 

The Academy is a club perpetually in a state of catching up with the latest trends and social shifts in an attempt to further shift the values of Oscar culture to that of a changing public. But since District 9, the Oscars have still mostly kept to films in their wheelhouse, with films like Black Panther, Her, Get Out, The Shape of Water, Amour, Ex Machina, Moonlight, Joker, Black Swan, Inception, and Parasite being a handful of exceptions, the latter barely making history as the first non-English film to win Best Picture. 

But even as the Oscars try and fail and sometimes succeed in capturing the zeitgeist of today, District 9 will likely stand out as one of the strangest anomalies in the Academy’s history for many years to come. Outside of potential sequel talk that has gone nowhere, the film often fades from the public consciousness and even when I personally ask friends of mine what they think of the film being a Best Picture nominee, I’m usually met with complete shock. This could just be me deep in my own social bubble, but it seems as though this effect extends far beyond. As internet culture becomes a mainstay the way it has in the past decade, a film that was ahead of its time in terms of marketing and audience connection has ironically been buried by the lightning-fast flow of internet news and trends.

It truly is a shame, but even then, it does not take away from what Blomkamp and the crew were able to accomplish. They created a story that was personal for its author, nabbed the support of a huge Hollywood name, became an audience smash, and captured the attention of the Academy in a manner that so few ambitious sci-fi features have done. My only hope is that District 9 helps inspire filmmakers to stick to their vision even with Oscar goals in mind and for the Academy to broaden their horizons by including a greater variety of films and genres going forward.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3633112/district-9-sci-fi-thriller-became-oscar-anomaly/

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