District 9 is not a subtle movie. It’s a sci-fi movie about prejudice and racism that’s set in Johannesburg and includes dialogue like a human saying “I love watching you [aliens] die”; in terms of nuance, this lands it somewhere around a Very Special Episode of a 1980s sitcom. But nobody ever said that metaphors have to be subtle to be effective, and what the film lacks in refinement it makes up for with a commitment to emotional and aesthetic authenticity. In fact, a large part of what makes the movie work so well is the way that writer-director Neill Blomkamp (sharing writing credit with Terri Tatchell and expanding on his own short film Alive in Joburg) lets the movie’s themes stand out in bright neon while downplaying the special effects that are usually the focal point of genre movies like this one. Spectacle is just a tool for telling a story, not an end in itself.
Part of the film’s aesthetic commitment to realism can be chalked up to budget, of course. It is objectively cheaper to just insert some brief shots of an alien mothership in establishing b-roll than it is to marshal thousands of animators to create the high-priced-but-still-somehow-ugly digitally rendered vistas you get in your average Marvel movie. (District 9 cost about $30 million to make; the final Avengers movie was more than eleven times that, and that’s before you get into marketing, which adds stomach-churning figures of its own.) But it would be unfair to Blomkamp as a storyteller to write off the look for those reasons when it’s clear that he’s put so much of his heart into the story. This is a sci-fi movie because it’s often easiest to make parables out of fantasy, but the focus is always on the relationships that move the plot and not, say, the size of the engines on the alien mothership. Blomkamp doesn’t give us that stuff because, it turns out, you don’t really need it.
The setup is pretty simple. In the early 1980s, aliens arrive and park over Johannesburg. They look like giant bugs (and are soon referred to by humans as “prawns,” after the Parktown prawn, aka the African king cricket), are messy but mostly harmless, and don’t seem to want to leave, so they’re housed in a government-created camp called District 9. The camp quickly becomes a slum, and by the time of the movie’s events (circa 2009, when the film was released), the government has decided to relocate the aliens to a new and somehow even less welcoming concentration camp several miles outside the city limits. The move is organized and executed by a weapons manufacturer called Multinational United that’s been contracted by the government to do the dirty work. MNU sends in a legion of soldiers led by white-collar paper-pushers, all overseen by bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a hapless middle-management type who mainly got the gig because his father-in-law is a company executive.
The inherent absurdity of relocating the aliens to a concentration camp through signatures and requisition forms isn’t a narrative gimmick to underscore the general inhumanity of the behavior. The whole thing is lifted from the real-life events that unfolded in Cape Town’s District Six, which was declared a whites-only area in the mid-20th century and would see the forcible removal of more than 60,000 black residents, whose homes were subsequently bulldozed. And this is where Blomkamp’s commitment to emotional bluntness makes its advantages known. As you’re watching District 9, you can’t help but feel immediately sad for the aliens and disgusted at the cold, casual way that the humans decide to treat them—yet this is, of course, exactly what happened in the real world between groups of actual people, one violently oppressing another. The stark nature of the prejudice in the film almost feels comic until you remember that it was exactly this clearly delineated in Cape Town; more, that it’s always this clearly delineated. Our books and memories are so full of these stories that repeatedly forgetting and reenacting them is our greatest sin.
The movie’s plot, smartly, plays into this. After coming into contact with an unidentifiable alien liquid, Wikus starts to go through the worst thing someone like him could imagine: he begins to physically transform into an alien being. His left arm is the first to go, turning into a jagged three-pronged claw below the elbow, and bits of carapace eventually start to appear on other parts of his body. The MNU immediately stops considering him to be a person and wants to use him for weapons testing and biological experiments, so Wikus escapes the MNU and returns to District 9 to find the aliens who owned the liquid and see if they know how to save his life. Copley is both believable and sympathetic as the aggrieved Wikus, especially as he grows to realize how badly the aliens were treated, and how much the MNU had lied to him (and everyone else) about some of the tests they conducted on captured aliens. Again, not an eye-opener narratively, and certainly not what you’d call a twist, but it serves Blomkamp’s main agenda of translating South Africa’s actual horrors to the screen.
District 9 is told mostly as a pseudo-documentary, cutting between talking heads who lay out the history of the aliens and the district with “on the ground” footage of things like Wikus and his team moving through the slum and interrogating and relocating the aliens. It doesn’t always hold to this, though, and there are huge chunks that are pretty clearly just film narrative and not meant to even pretend to look like something a documentary crew would capture. And for the story Blomkamp wants to tell, that mostly works, especially as the film builds toward a more action-centered finale. Still, it’s the documentary segments that remain the most powerful. You see people lamenting what happened, wishing it had gone differently, wondering where they went wrong. It’s these moments, the ones that call our own actions into question, that give the film a realism and heft that most sci-fi movies never touch.