Throughout my dedicated years as a cinephile, I’ve found that the greatest versions of fiction walk hand-in-hand with reality- particularly within the science fiction genre. Science fiction soars in its most imaginative form, however, the genre sticks when it hits close to home. Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, the 2009 Academy Award nominated smash hit, is a brilliant example of how effective science fiction can be when its themes are grounded in bleak realism. Let’s examine why this film belongs with the all-time classics of the genre.
Directed by the previously unheard of Neill Blomkamp from a script by himself and Terri Tatchell, District 9 featured the iconic Peter Jackson as producer, which no doubt carried weight in the film’s marketing process. The poster even reads “Peter Jackson Presents” before any mention of Blomkamp, a tactic that paved the way to early box office success. In addition to grossing over $200M worldwide, the film won the 2010 Saturn Award for Best International Film presented by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, and was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture.
The story for District 9 was adapted from Alive in Joburg, a short film directed by Blomkamp and produced by Simon Hansen and Sharlto Copley. The short film serves as an exploration of humanity, xenophobia, and social segregation- themes that are also prevalent throughout District 9. The film was inspired by the events in District Six, a former inner-city residential area in Cape Town, South Africa. Over 60,000 of the residents in District Six were forcibly removed from their homes in the 1970’s by the apartheid regime as enforcement for the racial segregation laws of South Africa. Under apartheid, the rights, associations, and movements of the majority black and ethnic inhabitants were deprived so that white minority rule could be maintained. From 1960 to 1983, upwards of 3.5 million non-white South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods, an event District 9 portrays with fictionalized creativity throughout the film.
District 9 begins with the revelation that in 1982, an alien ship inexplicably stopped over Johannesburg, South Africa, and has been dormant ever since. When investigative teams entered the ship, they discovered a vast population of sick and malnourished extraterrestrials, quickly nicknamed “prawns” by the general public, a term also used as an insult throughout the film. The government of South Africa confines the aliens to “District 9”, a camp located outside of Johannesburg. The film itself takes place 28 years later in 2010 as conflict between the extraterrestrials and locals living near the district results in a private military company, known as MNU (Multinational United), to relocate the aliens to a new internment. The plot centers around Wikus van de Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley, an Afrikaner Bureaucrat who is appointed to lead the relocation.
In addition to the human plot of District 9, the film also focuses on three extraterrestrials, Christopher Johnson, his young son, and his friend, as they scavenge pieces of their scattered technology from which they distill a fluid native to their race. While relocating the aliens, Wikus discovers the canister in which the fluid is being stored, accidentally spraying himself in the face. Under the influence of the fluid, Wikus’ body begins to deteriorate and turn into alien tissue. After the extent of the infection becomes apparent, he is detained by MNU and taken to their headquarters for experimentation, where it’s discovered that his newly acquired alien DNA allows him to operate extraterrestrial artillery that humans are biologically restricted to use. Wikus escapes headquarters and spends the remainder of District 9 on the run from the military while his body quickly progresses into that of an alien.
Seeking refuge, Wikus enters District 9 and stumbles into the shack of Christopher Johnson, learning that Christopher is hiding the lost command module of their spacecraft underground. Christopher informs him that the fluid in the canister would allow him to reactivate the command module and the dormant mothership- something that would provide him with the means to reverse Wikus’ mutation. Together, Wikus and Christopher work against MNU so that Christopher can return home and save his race, in addition to healing Wikus in the process.
District 9 expertly blends the underlying social commentary with exciting sci-fi action that keeps the film from being bogged down by its message. A resounding revelation throughout the film, however, is that Wikus becomes more humane as he becomes less human- a commentary that’s ever-relevant in today’s society. When you relinquish hate, prejudice, and fear of things you can’t bring yourself to understand, you realize that the differences between yourself and whatever you oppose are far outweighed by your similarities. In a year of unrest, this message should resonate with anyone keen enough to make the connection.
To close on a personal note, I was 18 the year that District 9 was released. I was unable to see the film in theaters, but I received the DVD for Christmas that year. I remember watching the film repeatedly that day and being unable to push the film out of my mind. Until that point in my life, though I’d seen more movies than I can probably count (fuck you, math), I hadn’t been the kind of person who would explore underlying themes of any kind. District 9 is the first film that caused me to delve under the surface of what movies had to offer, and in large part, it set me on a path that led me to writing about movies today. Without question, I hold this film in the highest regard, and it’s truly one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.