In 1982 an alien spacecraft descends into the Earth’s stratosphere and hovers for months over Johannesburg, South Africa. Humans, alternately fearing that the aliens are hostile and hoping that they are harbingers of technological advances, board the ship. They are disappointed to discover that the aliens are neither, being nothing more than incredibly ill and malnourished refugees from a distant planet. Human governments around the world provide aid for the aliens while they bicker over what to do with them. Eventually tensions between humans and the aliens (derisively known as “prawns”) spill over and the aliens are herded into District 9, a trash strewn shanty town. The aliens are then restricted from entering certain parts of South Africa.
After nearly thirty years, the world’s governments turn over control to Multi-National United (MNU), a private contractor much more interested in the advanced weaponry of the aliens than their well-being. A bumbling field agent for MNU, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of relocating more than a million aliens further away from Johannesburg in a new camp. After being sprayed by an unknown substance during a raid, Wikus begins a frightening metamorphosis into an alien. Realizing that Wikus can operate the weaponry due to the fact that his DNA has begun to change (the aliens’ guns cannot operate without alien DNA), MNU plans to experiment on Wikus. Wikus, rightfully fearing for his life, escapes from custody and hides out in District 9 where he seeks help from an alien known as Christopher Johnson. Christopher, who is earlier seen disputing the legality of an eviction notice, has plans of his own.
Inspired by the forced removal of sixty-thousand residents from District 6 in Cape Town, District 9 functions as a metaphor for apartheid-era racial policies. The “prawns” are definitely meant to symbolize members of racial minority groups as they are bipedal, employ verbal communication that is easily understood by humans, and even engage in inter-species sexual relations. The (mostly white) humans put in charge of policing them unthinkingly utilize colonialist arguments to justify their oppressive tactics; “prawns” are stereotyped as uncivilized, aggressive, lacking in initiative, none too bright, and lacking the same concept of land ownership that humans have. And Wikus’ transformation from human to alien mirrors the fates of scores of South African whites who lost their legal standing as whites once the government discovered their “non-white” ancestry.
Despite its interesting premise and inventive storytelling, this movie is eventually undone by its flaws. First, there are a lot of plot holes. For instance, MNU’s decision to kill Wikus and harvest his organs doesn’t make much sense. Isn’t he much more useful to them alive than dead?
Second, racial stereotypes of Africans abound. While always unacceptable, racial stereotypes definitely don’t belong in a movie with an anti-xenophobia message. However, that did not deter the filmmakers from presenting extremely negative images of sub-Saharan Africans. Every black person in District 9 was either: 1) an unthinking toady of white authority figures (Mandla Gaduka), 2) a violent criminal, 3) a believer in witchcraft and superstition, or 4) some combination of 1-3.
I found it very telling that the Nigerian warlords don’t live much better than the “prawns” they regularly exploit. (Even though quite a few Nigerians do live in South Africa, the filmmakers should not have assumed that an international audience would know that, which is yet another flaw in this movie.) I also thought it was odd that none of the South African blacks featured in the film seemed to see any parallels between the aliens’ predicament and their own recent history.
Finally, the third act quickly disintegrates into a standard Hollywood shoot-em-up, and District 9 relies too heavily on gore. Once the audience became aware that the aliens’ military hardware can literally blow its targets to bits, the filmmakers should have kept much of the violence off-screen. I covered my eyes numerous times, and I am not exactly squeamish.
Despite its imperfections, the mockumentary District 9 does make you think while managing to be entertaining, a feat few of the movies released this year have managed to pull off. In fact, District 9 is likely to find a wide audience and make more than a few “Best of 2009” lists.