If you take a big step back from the rough plot of the sci-fi thriller District 9, you can see it has a familiar story arc. A prejudiced character is forced to live amongst those he hates, only to find that the enemy isn’t so bad, and in fact might be worth fighting for. Heck, isn’t this the plot of Dances With Wolves? We could call this Dances with Prawns! But District 9 seemingly stormed Hollywood out of nowhere (or South Africa, if you will) making this formula plotline seem entirely fresh and completely invigorating.
District 9 is partly presented as a faux documentary (rather than a mockumentary, which is what Roger Ebert wrongly labels the film… there is nothing funny about this movie), detailing how 20 years earlier, a huge alien spaceship (think Independence Day) parked itself over Johannesburg and… sat there. In fact, it sat there for months, not doing anything until the government decided to drill into the ship. They found a leaderless mass of aliens that were sick and starving to death, but were seemingly harmless. Well, humans are humanitarian, right? So the million or so aliens were taken from the ship and moved to a “temporary” camp.
Well, 20 years has gone by, and the camp (called District 9) has since been fenced-in out of human paranoia, and the aliens (which have been nicknamed the derogatory label “prawns”) are now living in crime and squalor. Simply put, the compound has turned into an unpleasant eyesore. Racism (species-ism?) is rampant, and the local humans simply don’t want to be near the disgusting prawns who eat raw meat and salivate for cat food (which may as well be catnip to them). The government decides to close District 9 and move the alien population to a more “suitable ” (read: far from the city) site where the locals don’t have to look at them anymore. And this is where the buffoonish bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) comes in.
Wikus is giddy at his new position. His high-up father-in-law appointed him to command of the evacuation of District 9, which, unsurprisingly becomes violent as the residents realize they have no choice in the relocation. As Wikus and his crew knock on doors and confront the locals, you can’t help but wince as the humans shoot random prawns for sport and torch shacks full of incubating baby prawns. “You can hear them pop!” Wikus delightedly exclaims as fire engulfs the nest.
But the tide quickly turns as Wikus stumbles across a vial of liquid in an underground prawn laboratory. Accidental contact with the mystery liquid turns out to be a bad bad thing. Hours later, Wikus has grown his own prawn hand! Now, the government wants to get their hands on Wikus because, much to his dismay, he could be used as a very powerful weapon (literally). Well, where could one with a prawn hand hide? Amongst the prawns, perhaps?
The most obvious parallel for this tale being told in Johannesburg is one of apartheid. I’ve heard that for South Africans that there are many references in this film by first-time director Neill Blomkamp that blatantly reflect the country’s own history. But even without knowing these references, District 9 can be easily interpreted as symbolic of any country’s dark past (or present) where one race dominated and oppressed another (like Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, European Jews, etc, etc). But somehow, repackaging this message into a sci-fi movie with a “new” setting (i.e. not a major U.S. city) and a cast of unknowns, the story seems fresh, and becomes one of the most thrilling and fascinating sci-fi movies I’ve seen in a long time.