District 9 is a science fiction thriller released on August 14th, 2009. It is unique in many ways including the cinematography style that was used, which mixed a realistic documentary style with over the top action, and the way it incorporated powerful themes such as seeing the other as ourselves, xenophobia, historic analogies with Apartheid, and international corporations replacing governments among others. This review will contain a few spoilers so if you have not seen the movie you may want to see it before finishing this. Suffice it to say that I recommend this film highly and although it is far from perfect it strongly challenges our assumptions about the world and ourselves. It is a breath of fresh air in the recent history of science fiction films and hopefully it will inspire directors, producers, and writers to create similar movies that force us to reflect upon ourselves and the future that we are creating.
The story begins with a space ship full of worker aliens, with no apparent leadership, that comes to hover above Johannesburg, South Africa. Despite being able to hover miles above the ground the ship is otherwise disabled and inert. Three months after the ship arrived humans make the next move breaking into the ship. Inside they find thousands of aliens dieing of thirst and hunger and they relocate them to the surface in what will become District 9 inside the city of Johannesburg. 20 years pass and District 9 has quickly become a slum with all the crime and issues that impoverished areas are prone to such as drug trafficking, weapon and technology smuggling, and other problems. At the same time the MNU (Multi National Union), a corporation with a large military force and a scientific research branch, has taken control of MNU and also failed to understand any of the aliens advanced technology, which is keyed to the aliens DNA.
The narrative follows Wikus van de Merwe who is a seemingly inept mid level manager at MNU. He is put in charge of the forced relocation of the aliens from District 9 in Johannesburg to District 10 away from the city by his father-in-law who is in charge of MNU. During the relocation as Wikus and hundreds of MNU mercenaries and bureaucrats gather signatures from the aliens legally permitting the MNU to move them Wikus in injured and comes into contact with a mysterious liquid. That night after suffering a nose bleed with a black liquid coming out of his nose he discovers that his injured arm is changing into an alien arm as he heals. He panics and is taken into custody by MNU where they plan to harvest his hybrid genes for their weapon programs. He manages to escape and runs for District 9 where he hides from them. At this point his previous immoral actions of lying to the aliens, and heartlessly destroying a nest of their eggs among other actions begin to come back to haunt him. Over the course of the movie Wikus begins to understand the aliens as he slowly becomes more and more like them. By the end of the film he has joined them in their resistance against the MNU and other human oppressors such as the Nigerian gangsters. The ending of the film is hopeful but at the same time tinged with a realism that we cannot turn away from as we face the hope and the fear that are a part of our humanity.
One of the strongest symbols in the film is the obvious analogy to Apartheid in South Africa. District 9 is a direct comparison to the real Distract 6 in Cape Town, which was declared a “whites only” zone forcing non-Europeans to relocate to another area sometimes leaving homes they had lived in for generations. District 9 shows us in stark relief how difficult it is for humanity to learn from its past mistakes and how very easy it is to always fall into the same traps of hatred, fear, and oppression. No matter the time or place we must always struggle with our fear of the “other” whether they are a different race, social class, or culture or if they are a completely different species. We must be vigilant and follow the highest of God’s commandments of treating our neighbors as ourselves. It is only then that we will begin to truly create God’s kingdom here on Earth.
The answer to the fear of the other in the film is to take on the perspective, literally in this case, of the other. In one sense this is the classic tale of someone in the leadership falling from grace and becoming one of the oppressed. Only then do they begin to understand the magnitude of their sin. But in District 9 Wikus’ perspective is not changed by him simply falling out of favor, but in true sci-fi fashion, he is genetically altered and slowly becomes one of the aliens. This is a drastic shift, but one that clearly shows how we can hope to gain understanding of the other by trying to take on their point of view and to see the world how they see it. In addition to understanding his new neighbors by becoming like them Wikus also takes action in the end, after a rather steep learning curve, to help them repair their ship. One last theme I’ll mention is the importance of family throughout the film. Wikus repeatedly called his wife during his run from the MNU and was always trying to get back to her as he slowly lost his physical humanity. Also Christopher, one of the leading alien characters, had a son who was very important to him and who was a pretty cute kid, from an alien perspective. Both Wikus and Christopher place a high value on family values. To juxtapose the importance of family and to strengthen Wikus’ sin in the beginning of the film one of the most difficult moments to sit through was when Wikus found an unlicensed nest of alien eggs and set them afire. He explained to the television camera that the popping noises the eggs made as they exploded were just like popcorn.
The only major issue I had with the film was the extreme violence that ran though out it. Especially in the last 20 or 30 minutes during the climax of the film all of the stops were pulled out and District 9 become a literal war zone with modern and alien weapons firing left and right. The extreme violence, while it fit well with the documentary style of the film, was a bit of a turn off for me. Above and beyond that however is how the climax felt. It seemed to be a very different sort of movie as Wikus and Christopher ran through District 9 dodging bullets. While it doesn’t break the movie it was a bit abrupt and seemed to take a step away from the thoughtfulness of the first part of the movie.
Overall, I think the movie was excellent and by showing Wikus becoming the “other” it delved into the depths of the human spirit showing the vast potential that is there but also the fear and the hopelessness that we have embraced in this world. Like all great science fiction movies this film goes beyond the known world showing aliens and high technology, but ultimately shows us ourselves in this moment and offers us a choice about the type of future we want to create.