Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) collects “juice.” One of thousands of gangling, reptilian aliens who live in Johannesburg’s nonhumans-only shantytown, District 9, he’s got what no one else appears to have: a plan to escape. The juice, a kind of distilled alien-biological essence Christopher has been collecting for a decade, will fuel the small space ship he has hidden for years and painstakingly refurbished in his basement. And with that, Christopher and his son Little CJ will fly themselves to freedom—here, a gigantic mothership that has been looming over Johannesburg since the day the aliens landed, some 20 years ago.
According to the scientists and sociologists interviewed in the faux-documentary sections of District 9, the aliens were instantly deemed nonhuman, that is, monstrous and subaltern, contemptible and incomprehensible. In Neill Blomkamp’s dystopic vision of the earth’s near future, the aliens stand seven feet tall, with multi-jawed mouths that resemble both predators and Stan Winston’s acid-gooey aliens. Here they’re not just human-demolishing others, but are victims of racism, called “prawns” and “bottom-feeders,” living in poverty and regularly abused by cops and other authorities with guns. The film’s moral and political set-up is rather too obvious, underlined repeatedly by TV-news reports and corporate videos of human troops kicking in the doors of alien shacks (in an effort to “relocate” the inhabitants who, according to their human persecutors, don’t “understand the concept of ownership”) and aliens scavenging in garbage dumps for food (“They’ve become obsessed with cat food,” says one observer while an alien chews up and swallow a can, metal and paper and all).
As the film begins, the aliens are being “relocated” by Multi-National United (MNU), the corporation in charge of District 9, a splotch of real estate suddenly deemed valuable. The company assumes (and promotes the idea that) the aliens—who speak a click-inflected language—are unable to make plans, care about their families or build complex machinery. The judgmental humans are, of course, the wholly ignorant race here—whether they’re the white government types, represented primarily by the MNU dweeb Wikus (Sharlto Copley) and the scary bald mercenary Anton (Melt Sieberhagen), or black Nigerian cannibals, led by strongman Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa). Significantly confined to a wheelchair (yes, he’s weak and vile), Obesandio makes clear early on that he hopes to make voodoo use of alien flesh to regain his physical potency.
District 9‘s ostensible juxtaposition of bad whites and bad blacks actually privileges Wikus, who is himself persecuted by both groups, especially once he’s infected by Christopher’s juice and begins to transform into an alien. As Wikus’ arm becomes a reptilian claw and one eye turns lizard-gold, he becomes utterly frightening to his wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood), whose father, Piet (Louis Minnaar), actually heads up MNU. He assigns Wikus to oversee the relocation, imagining it will be an easy job, then treats his son-in-law’s ensuing body-identity crisis as an opportunity. Wikus’ own sense of who he is—that is, who’s on what side—changes radically when he witnesses Piet’s betrayal. When the old man okays the harvesting of Wikus’ organs for use in experiments aimed at gaining control over the aliens’ weapons (plainly large and powerful, but operable only by bearers with alien DNA), Wikus embarks on his own adventure, seeking help from the aliens he just hours before perceived as inferior beasts.
Wikus’ personal journey—from self-righteous human to vulnerable and empathetic alien—is part rambunctious action movie (lots of shooting and exploding) and part life lesson. As he enlists Christopher’s help in finding his way back to a purely human status, he comes to appreciate how hard it is, daily, to be an alien (see also: Black Like Me, Watermelon Man). Worried that Wikus’ plight might be perceived sympathetically, Piet piles on, with a PR campaign full of innuendo and outright lies. Not only does Wikus have to hide from troops assigned to bring him in for harvesting, but he also gags at tabloidy photo-shopped images of him having sex with aliens.
While it’s not entirely clear how the aliens are gendered, this particular (and fleeting) version of perversity underscores the abject fear signified by the hybrid Wikus. When boundaries between them and us are breached, the order of history and civilization is undone. If District 9 doesn’t precisely explore or interrogate this fear, it does make explicit its effects on the hapless white guy, painfully ill-equipped to deal with hostility and discrimination. Whether it’s the grisly cruelty mandated by Obesandjo or the days-long pursuit mounted by Anton, Wikus’ suffering makes him more and more like an alien and less and less like his original self.
If the moral and metaphorical parameters of this transformation are obvious, the visual framework is acutely familiar. Not only do the aliens look enough like previous movie aliens that they won’t shock viewers, but Christopher’s story is especially recognizable. A single father with a conventionally adorable, big-eyed and precocious child, he resists Wikus’ entreaties until he doesn’t, and then only proceeds with the belief that he will help “his people.” Christopher and Wikus’ partnership is not quite so sentimental as the one in Enemy Mine, but it does grant both parties the chance to do right in the face of monumental and manifest wrong. Racism provides the white guy with a very special growth experience. Err, pretty to think so.