The greatest science fiction isn’t about technology, aliens, outer space or any other convention of the genre. Those things might produce wonderment and spectacle, but they are meant to serve a greater purpose, to examine humanity’s evolution as a tinkering species with the burden of imagining itself in a future yet to come. The genre’s ability to grant us perspective enough to view familiar challenges and opportunities we might otherwise wish to ignore—or have become numb to—is what makes it such a compelling platform for storytelling. And that is certainly so in District 9, Neil Blomkamp’s ambitious and innovative take on xenophobia, refugee crises, and human nature.
The story takes place in roughly present-day South Africa, where, in the early 1980s, an disabled alien spacecraft skidded to a stop over the skies of Johannesburg. The ships’ occupants, an inspection slave race dubbed the “Prawns” had little idea how to operate their own ship, not a lot of wondrous technology to offer, and had need of a home. Before long, the Prawns are forced into a squalid refugee camp named District 9 — run by the Multinational United (MNU) corporation — while the rest of the world endlessly debates what to do about Earth’s unwanted visitors. Following a spate of violence, MNU seeks to relocate District 9’s occupants to a new camp, and appoints the feckless bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe to oversee the relocation. Very quickly, things turn sideways as some fo the Prawns resist, MNU mercenaries start dropping bodies, and Wikus catches a faceful of alien mutagen that begins transforming him into a Prawn. For MNU, Wikus is now the key to unlocking Prawn technology. But Wikus knows only too well what kind of treatment he can expect to receive at the hands of MNU scientists, and he goes on the run into District 9 in search of a way to cure himself and maybe help his newfound Prawn allies with a way to get the hell off this planet.
This movie was as unexpected and surprising as the arrival of the Prawns themselves within District 9’s own narrative world. The story of suddenly integrating an alien species within human society has been done before, but never with such a willingness to see nothing but downside. Sure, the arrival of aliens unites humanity, as we often imagine it might, but only to agree that nobody really wants to deal with the Prawns any longer…never mind that the Prawns’ greatest crime seem to be looking weird, not having a lot of initiative, and are addicted to cat food. Sure, the Prawns bring new tech with them, but it’s disappointingly underperforming compared to what we’ve already invented ourselves. Even Prawn society, which might provide us with fresh insights to our own human nature offers little to go on, since the Prawns are themselves largely ignorant of who they are. They are, after all, essentially interstellar slaves whose trip across the Middle Passage ended up on Earth instead of their intended market. All this told in a setting that is gritty and gloomy enough to feel descended from our own present without giving itself over to the dark fabulist of dystopia. After all, the entire world isn’t a hellhole. Just the one that the Prawns must inhabit.
Science fiction often becomes heavy-handed when it gets on a soapbox, but District 9’s take on how poorly we treat strangers, how quickly we retreat behind tribalism and how easily we carry out somebody else’s evil all works because we view these thing through Wikus van der Merwe’s swiftly mutating eyes. Once an unquestioning bureaucrat content to let MNU jackboots brutalize Prawns, Wikus can no longer ignore such atrocities once he has literally walked a mile in Prawn shoes. The less human Wikus becomes, the more he discovers his long-dormant humanity. A humanity which, as he more closely resembles one of the aliens, isn’t really confined to humans at all. Wikus’ adventure among his Prawn allies offers a frank reminder that the difference between native and immigrant usually depends more on luck and location than we care to admit. Very few of us can claim to have been “from around here” since the beginning of time, and yet we gladly dictate who has the right to join us. But no matter where we are from, we all deserve a place to call home. Not all of us are lucky enough to choose where that home might be.
Eventually, District 9 morphs from a transit through racial social borders into a more conventional action-adventure story, as Wikus and his Prawn friend Christopher battle MNU’s agents to capture the components they need for Christopher and his son to escape the planet. The set pieces are thrilling and visually dazzling, and they offer a certain degree of satisfaction as Wikus, reborn in more ways than one, exacts revenge upon his former MNU colleagues for every cruelty they inflicted upon the poor Prawns. Rampaging in an alien battle suit, Wikus wreaks havoc upon the very MNU gunslingers who always knew that somewhere among the Prawns were the tools for waging more effective warfare. But like so much else that the Prawns have brought with them, expectations and reality never quite meet up. While the battle suit is cool, it isn’t really that much deadlier than the MNU tanks and helicopters it demolishes. When Wikus is finally brought down and is at his enemies’ mercy, that’s when we see the real power of the Prawns — and any people who have been pushed to their limit — a willingness to die to set things right. As the smoke clears, we get our moment of truth with a final shot of Wikus, resigned to a fate he never asked for, but one to which he has adjusted, as he reminds the people he left behind that humanity can take many forms. We just have to see them for what they are.