I detest you, I pity you, I …need you?
Alien invasion makes for absorbing, sometimes terrifying stories. Aliens are creepy. They’re unpredictable. And they are almost always hostile. In good alien films, the kind we’re used to, extra-terrestrial assaults threaten humanity with captivity, even annihilation. Think Independence Day or War of the Worlds.
What if the story were reversed? What if the aliens were threatened with captivity and ruin at the hands of humankind? District 9 poses this scenario when an enormous, industrial-looking spacecraft becomes stranded over Johannesburg. For months it hovers above the city until a special task force of Multi National United (M.N.U.) personnel in helicopters are able to pry open the ship’s vault-like doors. Inside, M.N.U. workers find masses of bewildered and starving creatures resembling larger-than-human shrimps.
M.N.U. operatives shuttle the creatures to earth and establish for them a refugee camp—District 9. The situation quickly descends into chaos. The thousands of stranded creatures, “prawns,” as they become derogatorily known for their crustaceanly looks, try to create some semblance of normalcy amid the squalor of their sprawling shantytown.
The citizens of South Africa rise in protest against the prawns. They demonstrate, they riot, they demand that the undesirable creatures be taken away. Director Neill Blomkamp, a South African himself, captures the sentiments of the people’s contempt for the aliens in several faux interviews and news footage clips. Experts describe the creatures and the problems they pose for Johannesburg. We watch clips of the prawns fighting, rummaging through heaps of rubbish, and savagely consuming hunks of raw meat.
While we take in the scenes of the inhumanities committed against the non-humans, it is hard to miss the thinly-veiled subtext: this is how we treat each other.
M.N.U., tasked with alien oversight, devises a strategy for evicting the “invaders” to a new settlement in the sticks. The M.N.U. honcho hands the project to his inept son-in-law, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley). Wikus is a wimp, but a wimp who quickly assumes the prestige of his role at the head of M.N.U.’s anti-alien operation.
On the day of the operation, M.N.U. armored vehicles roll into the slums and M.N.U. agents begin handing down eviction notices backed by heavily armed soldiers. They bully, they coerce, and they bribe the prawns with cat food, which the creatures find irresistible.
Wikus can hardly conceal his disdain for the creatures. He curses them, kicks at them and mocks them as he moves from shack to shack serving evictions. We are allowed access to the undertaking through footage from an imbedded film crew. The sting moves along rapidly until Wikus confronts a clearly intelligent prawn who refuses the eviction orders. Wikus becomes exasperated and turns menacing. Inside the prawn’s hut, Wikus stumbles on what appears to be the prawn’s laboratory. While snooping around inside, Wikus has a fateful mishap that changes the direction of the story.
What has up til now been a thoughtfully imaginative (if theoretically plausible) depiction of inter-galactic tensions turns into a more somber sci-fi horror-flick. We find out M.N.U. runs an experimental laboratory that runs tests on the prawns in an attempt to figure out and exploit the prawns’ bio-technology—sophisticated weaponry that only prawns can operate.
We discover the ironic severity of Wikus’ accident: the prawns, whom he detests, become his chief allies as tensions escalate into an explosive battle between M.N.U., the prawns, and a ruthless band of African thugs who have been trying to steal the prawns’ weapons.
For nearly two hours, Blomkamp ferries us through a world that is at times unconvincing (if the prawns’ weapons are so advanced that the humans covet them, why don’t the prawns use them to eliminate the humans?), but at other times painfully credible. We can often imagine our own outlines being reflected in the prawns’ glassy eyeballs.
Visually, the film is near-flawless. Its over-the-top action sequences and fantastic storyline are everything we would expect from a film with co-producer Peter Jackson’s imprimatur on it.
Beyond being stacked with wowing effects and camerawork, the story requires us to think. It takes us to scenes of our own inhumanity and holds our noses down in it. It asks us what it will take for us to rethink our mixtures of loathing and pity for the people in shantytowns halfway around the world and in our own communities.
What would compel us to identify ourselves with the most unsavory among us, to challenge our own haughty indifference or malicious neglect of the aliens living right here? District 9, of course, does not answer those questions, but it invites us to entertain them while it entertains us.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1856