When it comes to aliens arriving on Earth, science fiction films have offered a few different possible roles. Often, especially during the 1950s, they come as invaders and conquerors. Perhaps just as often they come as ambassadors, such as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sometimes they come as amoral researchers, abducting people and experimenting on them. Comedic works and features for children often depict them as accidental tourists, an extreme case of the fish out of water. Neill Blomkamp’s first feature film, District 9 offers a new possibility for alien arrivals: refugees.
The film starts in a documentary style, relating an alternate version of the 1980s where a massive spacecraft stops over Earth. It doesn’t move, it doesn’t open. Eventually humans cut into it and find the aliens on board in deplorable conditions: lost, confused, and growing ill. Why the alien ship stopped is unknown. Why the aliens are so helpless is unknown. Where their leaders are… also unknown. And so the local government takes them in and puts them in a refugee camp. That local government? Johannesburg, South Africa.
Not exactly non-deplorable conditions itself.
Blomkamp is a native of Johannesburg himself, so the parallels to apartheid are a natural choice for him to examine. And as South Africa’s history in that regard (while sadly far from unique) is both recent and well-documented, it’s an easy theme for the audience to follow as well. He explored the theme in a short film, and Peter Jackson decided to act as producer for Blomkamp to make a feature-length version of the story. The decision paid off well; Blomkamp is going back to science fiction’s roots here by using it as a way to examine and satirize recent and current events as the sci-fi writers of old did. While the satire does get slightly lost near the end — no amount of exploring cultural atrocities can completely withstand the awesomeness of alien technology being used to fight pitched battles — it nevertheless remains a sharp and fascinating look at things.
The viewpoint character for the film is Wikus Van De Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley in his film debut. IMDb notes that Copley hadn’t even intended to be an actor, but was essentially recruited into it by Blomkamp; it was a good decision, as the nervous portrayal of Wikus feels very natural. Wikus is an office worker for a paramilitary organization that is in charge of “District 9”, the alien refugee camp. He’s been put in charge of an operation to relocate the camp further away from the city due to human-alien strife; this part of the story is set in the present day, after the aliens have been on Earth for close to three decades. Wikus is a rambling, eccentric fellow and seems likeable at first until the audience is shown how utterly callous he is towards the aliens. Despite knowing the aliens are sentient, he seems to be more inclined to think of them as clever animals.
If aliens ever do make contact, they’re likely to be very confused by our recent tendency to depict ourselves as the villains in such encounters.
Wikus’s life and mission are altered, as movies dictate must happen, by an encounter with one of the more proactive aliens, who is dubbed Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope). The aliens have a great visual design; basically humanoid in structure, but with inhuman appendages, carapaces, and tentacles around their mouths. The humans in the film dub them “prawns” as a slur. While they understand English, and the humans understand the alien language, neither seems capable of speaking the other language. When Wikus speaks in English, Christopher answers in his own language. Reportedly, Blomkamp told the actors what situations they would be in, but left the dialogue up to them, “translating” Christopher’s speech in post-production. It’s an unusual and risky approach to script-writing, especially with one of the leads being a novice actor. But this method of ad-libbing works out well; while there isn’t an abundance of witty quotable lines, the dialogue all feels very natural. It’s emotional, full of swearing, and occasionally verges on incoherence, but it always feels like something an actual person would say in that situation.
District 9, like a lot of satirical science fiction, can probably be taken just as a straightforward sci-fi yarn by those who are inclined to do so. It is certainly entertaining enough in its own right. But there is that extra layer of depth there, and even if the moral is redundant for many audience members, it still makes the film a little something more than “just a film about aliens”.