What is District 9? This was a question I had asked myself many times, whenever I heard the title brought up in workshop discussions or random conversation. Initially I thought it was an action-drama movie. I had imagined prison breaks, rapid gunfire, a happy ending. What is District 9? This was a question I asked even as I pressed the button that would play it on our TV. What unfolded on that screen was as far from expected as possible.
Aliens. A million of them. Their sudden arrival on an inoperative spacecraft in Johannesburg pushes the government to confine them inside District 9. During a mass relocation decades later, operation leader Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) becomes exposed to alien biotechnology, making him a valuable specimen for genetics research. Escaping capture, Wikus runs for his life and in the course of survival forges an unlikely friendship with an extraterrestrial (Jason Cope). Together, they struggle to harness alien biotechnology to achieve individual ends, even as a military colonel (David James) and his army follow at their heels.
The movie opens with Wikus, immediately establishing him as a bureaucratic flunky. In his early encounters with aliens, he displays a flippant callousness bordering on offensive. But while he is an unpleasant character, Wikus does not deserve what happens to him. Since exposure, his life is reduced to a series of choices forced onto him by circumstances. As a viewer, I felt tremendous pity for him. But I also recognized the cleverness of the setup, the possibilities it held for the film. The movie’s structure also deserves praise. Regular action sequences are interspersed with various mock-documentary material such as fictional news footage and interviews, creating an illusion of reality. This technique also lends the movie an exposé feel, as if we viewers were regular citizens suddenly given a chance to become privy to national secrets. The surveillance camera trick makes you feel as if the whole truth is unfolding before the public eye. Who can resist?
Like any good science fiction movie, District 9 offers a lot more uncertainties than answers. It pushes viewers to the limits of their imagination and poses the right questions—without brandishing a moral and, most importantly, without sacrificing the story. A film worthy of its premise, District 9 refuses to fade into memory. It delivers a calculated ending that leaves viewers with a profoundly disturbing chill.
When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.