If movies have taught us anything, it's that we must beware the aliens who will one day visit us (or perhaps, already have visited us), probes and disintegrating ray guns in hand. With the exception of the occasional chocolate addict like E.T., the alien invaders mean us no good.
But what if it's the other way around? What if it is they who ought to fear us? That's the scenario imagined by South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp in District 9, in which we humans, with our history of murder, deceit, genocide, medical experimentation, speciesism, racism, and exploitation, are the species the rest of the universe ought to give an intergalactically wide berth.
In a documentary-style opening montage, District 9 lays out an entirely plausible and woeful history in which, some time in the 80s, a massive alien ship appeared, and hovered, apparently stalled, over Johannesburg, South Africa. When impatient humans finally breached the ship, they discovered many malnourished aliens aboard. These "prawns," so called because of their vague resemblance to the crustaceans, were in dire straits, and were eventually settled in a vast refugee camp. That was apparently the end of Earth's humanitarian impulses. The camp, known as district 9, eventually became a slum, a shantytown like so many impoverished, dysfunctional, dangerous third world slums, with millions of aliens segregated from their unwelcoming human neighbors. (Insert Apartheid analogy here.) Decades later, the refugees fall into violence, and scavenging, and are preyed upon by violent Nigerian gangsters who exploit their addiction to cat food.
For reasons that become clear as the story progresses, the prawns are to be resettled in a more remote camp, with the dirty work to be done by MNU (Multi-National United), a vaguely evil corporation engaged in various kinds of vaguely evil doings. The bloke in charge of the resettlement is a mild-mannered, nervous, paper pushing bureaucrat named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), whose father-in-law (Louis Minaar) heads MNU. Wikus gets no respect (and earns none) from either his coworkers, or from prawns. Backed by (mostly white) MNU mercenaries, he heads into the camp to serve eviction notices on the prawn residents. Wikus is like so many ordinary citizens throughout history, members of a privileged class who are actively or passively complicit in the persecution of those deemed Other, or Unclean, or Subhuman. And like a few others, Wikus is forced out of his complacency (and into some kind of heroism) by a clanging cognitive dissonance. For Wikus, an incident occurs during his eviction rounds -- without giving too much away, let's just say it is a truly alienating experience. Things subsequently go terribly wrong, and he discovers, to his horror, just what has really been happening to the prawns at the hands of MNU soldiers and doctors.
There are pointedly allegorical and political aspects to District 9, but Blomkamp, who co-wrote the screenplay with Terri Tatchell, doesn't get heavy-handed or preachy about the message embedded in his ingenious and fascinating film. Instead, District 9, in the tradition of the best science fiction and horror genre pictures, integrates thought provoking ideas into a smart, suspenseful, darkly humorous, and thoroughly entertaining movie. District 9 is a cracking good and gruesome horror film that morphs into a fast-paced, action-adventure alien-human buddy picture (with cute-ish alien kid thrown in for good measure).
That alien buddy to Wikus is known as Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), a prawn father who is much more than he appears. Christopher's relationship with Wikus is complex, burdened by a history of mistrust, exploitation, and betrayal, as well as a language barrier (the aliens speak in clicks, translated for the viewer in subtitles). The prawns and humans seem to understand each other about equally, which is to say, only partially. But real communication transcends language, and Wikus and Christopher come to an understanding, and find common ground and purpose, a recognition of their mutual (if not superficially obvious) personhood. The cosmic joke of District 9 is that for the prawns, becoming more human is a degrading experience; for Wikus, becoming a mensch requires a thorough alienation from his humanity.