Ever since 1897, when HG Wells first wrote of Martians attacking London in The War of the Worlds, science fiction has dreamed up many an idea of what might happen when we finally make contact with life from another planet. Most, from the Goa’uld in Stargate SG-1 to the Kaiju in Pacific Rim, want to destroy or enslave us. Others, like Klaatu and Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still, just want to help us. But relatively few films have ever asked what might happen if the extraterrestrials came to us for help.
Sadly, if Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut District 9 is anything to go by, alien refugees might be better off seeking asylum on another planet. While movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers used alien invasion as a metaphor for the dangers of external forces like Communism, District 9 represents a much more dangerous, internal force: the ugly paranoia that turns every stranger into a potential enemy.
In the 1980s a rusty, derelict spaceship grinds to a halt over Earth; not above New York, LA or Washington DC as is so often the case, but above the South African city of Johannesburg. The filthy and malnourished aliens inside are neither cute nor cuddly – in fact, they look more like a cross between Dr. Zoidberg and a cockroach. They soon get the derogatory nickname ‘prawn’ (a reference to the Parktown prawn, a pest common in South Africa), and are walled off outside the city in the ghetto of the title, where they stay for the next 20 years.
As the film opens we see Multi-National United, a private military outfit, preparing to enter District 9 and evict the residents to a relocation camp far outside the limits of the city (and isn’t it ironic that, even in inherently upbeat movies like Pacific Rim, humanity only seems able to pool its resources for the greater good when there’s an alien menace to fight?). Low-level bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is brought along for the ride, but after a freak accident with a piece of alien technology he finds himself a fugitive, forced to hide in District 9 and, eventually, fight his way out of it.
The metaphor is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Turn the number upside down and you have District 6, an infamously white-only area of Cape Town during the era of apartheid; the myriad signs erected throughout Johannesburg declaring certain zones as ‘humans only’ are more than a little on the nose. But it needs to be on the nose to highlight just how deep-seated the racial tensions are that still exist in South Africa even today. When Blomkamp was filming Alive in Joburg, the short film which inspired District 9, he interviewed real South African citizens for their reactions – “I think they’re no good,” opines one little old lady, “ever since they came here there’s been rape and murder… ” Except Blomkamp wasn’t asking these people what they thought about aliens, but about Zimbabwean refugees. The word ‘prawn’ is just a stand-in for any one of a dozen racial slurs.
And yet, even as the characters in the film constantly dehumanise them Blomkamp goes to extraordinary lengths to make the ‘prawns’ feel as real as possible – not just through stunning visual effects overseen by the geniuses at Weta Digital, but by careful world-building. Their huge mothership hangs in every shot, but the camera rarely focuses on it – and why should it? The damn thing’s been a part of the South African skyline for two decades; it’s old news. It’s the myriad of tiny details, from their obsession with cat food to the graffiti scrawled on the side of shacks, that make the ‘prawns’ feel like a part of life in Johannesburg (albeit a part that’s been pushed off to the side).
The dark spectre of South Africa’s apartheid policy hangs heavy over the film – the Soweto shantytown where filming took place was full of residents who were in the process of being evicted even while the cameras were rolling, in a strange case of art and life imitating each other. But there are parallels that run much deeper and older, too. With their hideous but bipedal bodies, the ‘prawns’ really are subhuman – literal untermenschen. Watching them scurry for cover as jackbooted soldiers work their way through shacks with identification codes printed on each door, it’s hard not to think of scenes from the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Even Wikus himself eventually admits that the facility the aliens are being relocated to is really more like a concentration camp.
Humanity does not come off well in District 9, and most of its worst qualities are embodied in its protagonist, brought to life by a stunning debut performance from Sharlto Copley. At the beginning of the movie he buys into the anti-alien rhetoric as fervently as anyone, watching on with glee as a disposal team casually incinerates a shack full of incubating alien eggs, and revelling in the popping sound they make as they expire – Hannah Arendt’s idea of the ‘banality of evil’ comes to mind. The fact that Copley improvised all of his dialogue and even made up details on the fly (choosing to call a particular piece of graffiti a ‘gang sign’) gives his turn a disturbingly real edge. Turn your head to squint, and he sounds like any of a dozen real-life bigots.
And yet, there is hope. Even as Wikus slowly becomes less human, his DNA turning into that of one of the ‘prawns’, he somehow seems to find his humanity, slowly coming to care for their fate and reluctantly taking on the role of what some might call a freedom fighter. The message couldn’t be simpler – embracing what we find strange is what makes us human – and there’s no better way of getting that message across than with Cronenbergian body horror.
District 9 may have its flaws – the mockumentary aesthetic that dominates the first half feels unnecessary, and the descent into action and explosions in the finale feels a little bit too rapid – but what it gets right more than eclipses what it gets wrong. Truly great science fiction is supposed to hold up a funhouse mirror to humanity and let us grimace at the twisted reflections of our own selves, and in that respect Neill Blomkamp’s debut remains one of the greatest pieces of science fiction of the 21st century.