I dislike alien/zombie movies and vowed I would never see another after 28 Weeks Later (the worst sequel in the world and a clumsy parable for the war in Iraq). But District 9 is nimble. It does not abandon its allegory in favor of interminable chase scenes, paramilitaries with poor aim, and spumy alien entrails; it incorporates these things judiciously.
The cleverness of the film’s setting has been widely noted. In lieu of the low stakes and bland corruptibility of post-industrial America, writer-director Neill Blomkamp presents the toxic vim of failing-state South Africa, a more apposite backdrop for an alien visitation that reveals less what’s out there than what’s always here: bigotry, venality, infrequent flashes of compassion. The film alludes to the expropriation and razing of Cape Town’s District Six under the Group Areas Act of 1966, whereby 60,000 mostly Colored residents were escorted from their homes in the heart of the city—a neighborhood full of jazz and forbidden mingling that the government pronounced a den of iniquity and overcrowding—to the windswept shantytown of the Cape Flats. Blomkamp invokes, unobtrusively, more recent troubles as well: last year’s xenophobic pogroms targeting Zimbabwean, Mozambican, and Malawian migrants; illegal arms deals with pariah states; AIDS-inflected myths about muti cures.
In brief: discoid mothership comes to rest above Johannesburg. When the aliens decline to invade, Earthlings send an exploratory mission to infiltrate the spacecraft. They find inside a hive of malnourished, light-deprived beings—drones on a starship Titanic. An interim solution—to house them in Johannesburg’s District 9 (shot on location in the township of Soweto)—soon becomes a political bugaboo outsourced to Multi-National United, a military contractor in the tradition of Orwell and Cheney. Wikus Van De Merwe is the hapless MNU lackey charged with relocating the aliens to District 10, a tent-city concentration camp suitably distant from the capital. As Wikus travels from shack to shack coercing the aliens to sign some eviction legalese, he happens across a mysterious canister of black fluid (alien ambergris that doubles as rocket fuel), which he manages to spray in his face. Uh oh.
Blomkamp’s imagination allows for a lot of wit. The aliens acquire the epithet of “prawns,” a play on the generic genocidal scapegoat “cockroach” as well as a reference to the Parktown prawn, a gargantuan gogga, big as a langoustine and springy as a springbok, which makes grown men shriek like kugels when they find one in their slipper. (The creature is a king cricket and it jumps toward you. Doom spray is its laughing gas. If you thump it with a Bible it seeps a foul black ooze. As Wikus would say, have a look right here at the little fokker.) Blomkamp puns on the idea of an arms race by giving Wikus a prawn arm as the herald patch for his human-to-alien transmogrification. Handily enough his new appendage lets him operate alien weaponry to defend himself against all manner of foes (the cinematically ubiquitous Nigerian ganglord, who wants to eat the arm; a cadre of vaguely ex-Rhodesian mercenary goons hired to capture Wikus so that MNU can harvest his hybridized parts).
In Blomkamp’s short film Tempbot, a robot protagonist zooms in on people’s faces to gauge the tenor of their conversation, computing degrees of insubordination, friendliness, and shame. The same dispassionate precision marks District 9‘s social commentary. The hermetic bourgeois comforts enjoyed by Wikus and his wife, Tania, who call each other “baby” in an inimitably white South African way; the oversize tins of cat food the aliens are “addicted” to; the stigma of interspecies sex; the trope of dismemberment—these details, among others, bespeak privation, violence against the body, a fractured body politic. At the end of the film, Tania finds on her doorstep a finely wrought flower made of scrap metal and glass, a gift, she surmises, from the fully alienated Wikus (at the film’s beginning, he makes her a papier mâché bowl, which she accidentally sits on). He was always so devoted; Tania, with her slightly haggard beauty, hair the color of lemonade, and MNU mucky muck dad, was out of his league. I thought of the Zimbabweans in Cape Town who sell beadwork flowers at the stoplight before the airport road, thrusting riotous fistfuls of proteas and tiger lilies through your car window. They are, in the film and in life, fleurs du mal and symbols of resilience.