Urged on by unanimously rave reviews, I went with my wife and three teenage sons to see the film District 9. We were anticipating the sci-fi event of the decade, a work of intelligence and imagination. The FT had promised “an alien film with socio-political bite, reminiscent of those great Cold War-infested studies of paranoia … that used extragalactic interlopers to make social observation.” The Guardian was clearly aroused: “The DNA of action-sci-fi merges with a sleek exo-skeleton of satire to create a smart dystopian movie, excitingly shot in a docu-realist style.” The Telegraph could barely contain itself: “District 9 is the most imaginative, resonant and dramatically turbo-charged work of science fiction for many a moon.”
None of the reviews we read before seeing the film, and none of those I’ve scanned since, mentioned the most salient fact about District 9, namely the gut-wrenching and gruesome horror of the pivotal scenes in which the hapless Wikus van der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) begins his partial transformation into an alien. This was a scene so cruel and fraught with physical agony and fear that my wife left the cinema with our 16-year-old, who was about to be sick. The two other boys stayed, as did I, but we emerged 90 minutes later shaken and angry that this had been sprung on us.
There are two questions here. The first is why critics don’t indicate that the film under consideration contains scenes that may well shock or disgust their readers. Perhaps they are so inured to a diet of grotesque screen violence that they no longer notice. Or perhaps they really like cruelty and gore. The second is why the British system of film classification allows this kind of horror to pass as suitable for 15-year-olds, especially as a film with a 15 rating will be watched by many children younger than 15.
The catch-all nature of the classification system is also questionable. An ultra-violent film like District 9 is lumped with films which contain mild nudity, or those which express unfashionable political views. There should be a separate classification for violent content, with a sliding scale of one for (say) Pride & Prejudice to ten for snuff movies. On that scale District 9 would come in at about 8.5. Was District 9 worth the horror? A matter of taste. But forewarned about the level of violence — either by the critics or the classification — I would have given it a miss.