Recently I wrote about how the horror movie Drag Me to Hell didn’t entirely live up to the hype surrounding it. People were saying it was a new classic for the genre. Now having seen District 9, a film receiving similar fanfare, I must agree that this is one of the best science fiction films I have seen in years. It is entertaining, thought-provoking, creative, and doesn’t have any extraneous scenes. Even better, it has neither a Hollywood ending or one that will leave you depressed. In my opinion, ending a movie this way is harder to achieve than it might seem– especially for a science fiction movie.
The movie begins in the style of a documentary, that would seem entirely realistic to us if it were not about the arrival of aliens. We find out that about 20 years ago an alien ship began hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. Military forces eventually entered the ship to see what was inside, because the ship did nothing after it arrived.
Inside, thousands of human-sized insect-like aliens were discovered and appeared malnourished. For unknown reasons their ship could not leave. The government of South Africa decided to move the aliens to the ground directly below their ship. This is the area known as District 9. The aliens, referred to as “prawns,” become hated by South Africans, who see them as a nuisance and lesser, animalistic beings. District 9 becomes a slum, and eventually the government of South Africa hires a private corporation to manage the eviction of the aliens from District 9 to a concentration camp.
This is where we pick up the story in present day. As it progresses, the style of the movie seems intentionally less like a documentary as the story unfolds and more like a traditional movie. We meet a bureaucrat who is has been promoted and will be in charge of the evacuation of the aliens. He is apparently one of the most knowledgeable people about the “prawns,” but despite his knowledge also views them as foul pests. During the initial evacuation of District 9, he meets an alien referred to as Christopher Johnson. Johnson has been trying to assemble the materials needed to fix his peoples’ space ship.
This is the basic setup for the action that then takes place in the rest of District 9. It’s both exciting and interesting, but to discuss the plot more is a disservice to people who haven’t seen the movie. Some people have lauded the movie’s use of science fiction to provide commentary on South Africa’s history of Apartheid. In Roger Ebert’s review of District 9 he explains that
The film’s South African setting brings up inescapable parallels with its now-defunct apartheid system of racial segregation. Many of them are obvious, such as the action to move a race out of the city and to a remote location. Others will be more pointed in South Africa. The title “District 9” evokes Cape Town’s historic District 6, where Cape Coloureds (as they were called then) owned homes and businesses for many years before being bulldozed out and relocated. The hero’s name, van der Merwe, is not only a common name for Afrikaners, the white South Africans of Dutch descent, but also the name of the protagonist of van der Merwe jokes, of which the point is that the hero is stupid. Nor would it escape a South African ear that the alien language incorporates clicking sounds, just as Bantu, the language of a large group of African apartheid targets.
He’s right that most of us know little about South Africa, and thus it’s much easier for the ignorant among us to view the story simply as a tale of how refugees are often treated badly. We don’t talk about the humanitarian issues involved with refugees enough in society, mostly because we choose not to think about the unpleasantness of being homeless and subject to the benevolence or hostility of a neighboring country’s government.
It’s worth noting though that at least one reviewer thought that the movie was not really about refugees and only used them as a plot vehicle for what he describes as “the dull, anti-corporate politics of District 9.” I think he missed the point entirely and instead focused on one particularly disturbing aspect of the movie’s subject matter.
In defense of such criticism, I will also put forth the idea that there are no new stories to be told. Only new ways to tell them. The story of refugees is more relevant than ever. District 9 provides food for thought about the issue in a compact, creative, and entertaining way. It even reminds us that even our own grotesque treatment of each other is perhaps the most alien thing of all.