District 9 is a film that arrives in cinemas following a very heavy marketing campaign, which deemed Earth “for humans only”. It would be easy to be disappointed following the heavy hype around it; however District 9 is well worth the wait.
The story takes place in Johannesburg, above which an alien ship hangs dormant, while millions of its inhabitants live in rudimentary shacks in an area known as ‘District 9’. Here, they’re kept away from the human population (aside from ruthless gangsters keen to exploit the situation), but following much public pressure Multi-National United, a technology company, is drafted in by the government to lead the displacement of the aliens from District 9 to a newer compound, District 10, away from the city. District 9 is shot part-documentary style, and part-straight actioner. There are times when people talk to camera about the events that unfold during the course of the film, at other times people explode after being shot by an alien ray gun.
Central to this story is Wikus wan de Merwe, a pencil pusher who is appointed to lead the evacuation of District 9. He’s appointed by his father-in-law, who is an MNU higher-up. Wikus leads us around District 9 as he begins evicting aliens, and we come to realise that Wikus is not especially likeable as he undermines, manipulates and mocks the aliens – and when he gleeful orders the burning of a shack-full of alien eggs, and comments that it sounds like popcorn, he truly cements that unlikeability. Unfortunately for Wikus, he’s exposed to an alien fluid, and so begins a slow and painful transformation into a ‘prawn’ – a derogatory nickname for the aliens.
I would, for a minute, compare Wikus to another civil servant shoved into a situation far beyond his – or anyone else’s – capabilities: Torchwood’s John Frobisher. John Frobisher is a civil servant tasked with communicating and negotiating with an alien life-form who wants to exchange 10% of the Earth’s children in exchange for not destroying the planet. Frobisher must allow and commit terrible things – such as negotiate the number of children to deliver to the alien. But John Frobisher is a sympathetic man. He is clearly in over his head, he is downtrodden, and he is a scapegoat for the puppet masters who are the true human villains. Personally, however, I did not find Wikus to be a sympathetic man. He gleefully accepts the position he is given. He happily treats the aliens as lesser beings, has no qualms about demonstrating the manual abortion of an alien egg by removing the pipes that feed it, and he calmly stands by as aliens are beaten and shot. Even when it becomes clearer that Wikus is our hero, he behaves in highly unlikeable ways, turning on Christopher, an alien he must turn to for help, in order to save his own skin. Wikus gets his redemption, certainly, but he’s a hateful hero for most of the film.
How can a film with a hateful hero succeed in being so involving? The answer is two-fold: he is only as hateful as he is human, and the aliens he must work with show more humanity than, at times, he does. District 9 is achieves this through some wonderful dialogue, which is truly the film’s strength. Wikus’ occasional monstrosity is highlighted through some subtle moments from the aliens, who are more often seen mindlessly destroying their surroundings, fighting, or eating. For example, when told that he’s about to be evicted, one alien responds (in an alien language, subtitled – the aliens never speak English) “What is eviction?” while another, when asked if he understands, simply says “No.” The alien rabble does not understand what is happening to them, and no effort is made to explain.
But these are just anonymous aliens. The real pathos comes in the form of Christopher Johnson, a particularly intelligent alien, who is striving to fix a shuttle to return to the mothership, and so home. With him is his son, an adorable, half-sized alien. In Christopher we see some marvellously human behaviour. When Wikus scuppers their chances of fixing the shuttle, Christopher sits his son down and tries to explain to him that they can’t go home yet, but that they can go to a new home, all while showing him an MNU-produced leaflet advertising District 10. He displays anger much like a human would, punching and kicking a wall. Perhaps most subtly, Christopher displays a cleverly human trait of manipulating Wikus, who has just made fun of his attempts to fly home, by simply saying “Too bad,” drawing Wikus to ask more questions, before revealing that he could help Wikus’ condition if he could make it to the mothership. Not only does Christopher not rise to Wikus’ mockery, he twists the situation on its head by making Wikus agree that fixing the shuttle is a good idea.
The idea of going home is what links Wikus and Christopher. Wikus desperately wants to return home to his wife, Tania, but cannot because his father-in-law is part of the campaign to keep him captive and to use him to further MNU’s knowledge of alien weaponry. Christopher simply wants to return, with his son and his people, to their home planet. A wonderful moment takes place when Christopher’s son holds his arm out alongside Wikus’ arm – which has transformed into an alien arm - and the child says “We’re the same.” Through Christopher’s striving to save his people, the aliens display more brotherly humanity than any of the humans. The humans of the film have almost as little regard for each other as they do for the aliens, exemplified by MNU. Through the course of the film, Wikus’ transformation into an alien accelerates, and it is only as he is further transformed that he finds his humanity and his redemption.
Another film I would compare District 9 with would be Wall-E. These two films appear to be infinitely different, but they deal with very similar themes, namely the theme of returning home, and of non-humans reminding humans how to be, well, human. While Wall-E, a robot, succeeds in showing all of what’s left of humanity that they need to look further than simply inward, and in doing so helps facilitate their return home, Christopher succeeds in showing just Wikus what it means to be truly human: by striving to help his own people, and by being unfailingly kind to Wikus, despite all his injustice.
It can be said that the second half of District 9 simply resorts to generic shoot-outs and man-on-the-run action. That may be so, but such a strong foundation is laid with the story and the characters that this is hardly a bad thing. It allows for a little showmanship in Neill Blomkamp’s direction, and some truly great action sequences. Blomkamp makes effective use of special effects, with the CGI aliens convincingly real. Although Blomkamp displays great potential with his debut feature film, the real star of District 9 is, without a doubt, its lead actor, Sharlto Copley, who reportedly adlibbed all his lines. His performance is utterly convincing and full of subtleties – despite the fact that he is undeniably cruel at the beginning of the film, there is a great deal of humour in his character. I sincerely hope he’s rewarded accordingly come the awards season.
There are subtle hints in District 9 to how the situation regarding the aliens is shrouded in propaganda. In scrolling news, the aliens are described as politically correct ‘space creatures’, rather than the racist term ‘prawn’ used by almost everyone actually involved with the aliens; while a training tape played in the background of an MNU truck cheerily informs that “a smile is cheaper than a bullet”, after we’ve just witnessed the massive mistreatment of the aliens. These hint at an unreality created about the situation that is presented to the public. This makes for a wonderful parallel to Wikus himself, who, we come to realise is still human, underneath the pencil pusher – and even then, it is because of, not in spite of, the monstrous way in which see him behave. It just takes a whole lot of prawns for him to learn how to behave with some true humanity.
Edited to add: I realise I don't bring up the more obvious ways in which District 9 acts as a metaphor - for racism, segregation and apartheid. I haven't mentioned it as I believe it's fairly obvious that District 9 takes inspiration from such events, and I'm sure it's been written about better elsewhere.