Wow. When I first heard about District 9, I thought it would be a semi-entertaining movie about an alien invasion of earth. And if I was lucky, it’d have some sweet action—basically, a typical summer movie. No surprises. And I was right… But I was also wrong. Because I was really surprised by the film that I saw.
District 9 is two stories in one. On one level, it’s a parallel to the terrible real-life tragedy of apartheid (legal segregation in South Africa from the years of 1948 to 1994). And on another level it’s the personal tale of a man, Wikus Van Der Merwe, and his reaction to those being segregated.
Now, before I precede any farther, I’d like to give a SPOILER ALERT to those of you who haven’t seen this movie yet. I don’t normally discuss plot specifics in my reviews, but I feel like, in this case, I can’t avoid it.
District 9 starts with the revelations that, 27 years ago, an alien mothership settled over Johannesburg, South Africa. In the years following, nothing happens. No one comes out of the ship, no giant lasers shoot from it, and Will Smith never blows it up. So the good people of Johannesburg fly up to it in helicopters and cut it open. They find an entire colony of aliens who are sick and hurting inside. So they bring them down to the city, begin to give them medical aid and food, and decide over time that the best thing to do for everyone is to segregate the aliens to their own part of town: District 9.
The story picks up in the present with the government’s decision, after public outcry, to move the alien refugees to a new location further outside of the city. Wikus Van Der Merwe is placed in charge of this effort. He and some soldiers are dispatched to District 9 to serve eviction notices to the aliens. While there, Wikus finds a small canister in a shack he’s searching. While holding the canister, it sprays him with a dark liquid. After returning home, Wikus becomes increasingly ill. He’s taken to the hospital where doctors find that his arm has mutated into an alien appendage. This excites the government of South Africa, who have been trying to discover why they’ve been unable to use any of the aliens’ weapons. They discover that Wikus, who is steadily changing and becoming more alien than human, is now able to use alien weapons, as they operate only when in contact with alien DNA. When he protests to being used and escapes, Wikus becomes the most wanted man in the country, on the run from the government. He soon discovers that the only place he can hide is in District 9. As he continues to change into an alien, he bonds with an alien named Christopher Johnson and his son. This bond leads to him helping them get back to their ship and return home with the promise of returning in three years to return Wikus back to his human form.
After watching District 9, I have no doubt that it will become a sci-fi classic. Its visuals alone are enough for this. But I think its true merit is found in its incredibly original story, and the viewpoint from which it’s told.
Racism and segregation are horrors that we Americans are all too familiar with. And in District 9 we’re allowed to see two different sides of this issue from the same set of eyes. At the beginning of the film, Wikus clearly shares a view of the aliens that most of Johannesburg does. He refers to them by a derogatory slur, “prawns,” used by those who look down upon them. He even burns down a shack filled with alien eggs in their incubation stage. Then, after he begins to change, we see him become more empathetic, eventually choosing to help them even when he doesn’t have to.
While District 9 does have some scenes of graphic violence (mainly due to the alien weapons) and plenty of language, I think it’s a great example of what great filmmaking can do: entertain and inspire. It’s a great way to strike up conversations with those around us about such touchy topics as segregation, discrimination, compassion, and equality.
In short, go see this movie.
Josh Treece wouldn’t mind having an alien as a best friend. But only if it was one from this movie or maybe E.T., not one from Mac & Me. That movie still weirds him out. When not wishing for that, he can be found ministering to teenagers.