We like to think that if a spaceship filled with aliens arrived on earth, it would be a chance for enlightenment, a moment of grace.
More likely, the scenario envisioned in the ingenious District 9 would come to pass. And it ain’t pretty.
It’s 1984 in Johannesburg and a space ship has hovered over the city and stalled. On board are aliens—almost a million of them, scared and hungry—who are rounded up into a ghetto-like area (District 9), where they’re monitored by a paramilitary group, the MNU. (The MNU is particularly interested in the alien's sophisticated weaponry, which can only be fired by those with alien DNA.)
The public’s initial curiosity about the aliens, nicknamed “Prawns” because of their resemblance to the shell fish, eventually turns to suspicion, revulsion, and cries of “send the Prawns home.” Nigerian gangsters have descended upon District 9 to search for weapons and provide black market cat food (an alien favorite) and interspecies prostitution.
Now, 20 years have passed and the residents of Johannesburg want the Prawns out of their city, so the MNU will have to evict them—a formality that alien rights groups insist upon—and herd them into a remote concentration camp.
All of this is explained matter-of-factly, documentary-style, in District 9’s riveting opening minutes. We also meet the unfailingly cheerful Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copely, who’s just perfect), a midlevel bureaucrat for the MNU, who is assigned the unenviable task of handing out the eviction notices. This is a promotion, of sorts, but everyone besides Van De Merwe seems to think it’s also a death sentence (Van De Merwe’s father-in-law, who clearly despises him, happens to be a high ranking MNU official.) Van De Merwe’s clueless bonhomie slightly evokes the Ricky Gervais character from The Office.
We know from some ominous talking-head-style interviews that things will go horribly wrong for Van De Merwe, but I won’t ruin the suspense here. Suffice it to say that our happy pencil-pusher ends up a fugitive from his own government, and that his only chance for survival may lie with the very aliens he was sent to evict.
This is the first feature-length film from director Neil Blomkamp, a protégée of Peter Jackson (who execute produced) and while his film has a few glitches—the cinema verite style drops in and out and, frankly, makes no sense once Van De Merwe is on the run—I’m willing to forgive him. There’s a reason District 9 has been getting crazy internet buzz: It has smart things to say about Apartheid and our fear of the “other,” plus it’s funny, scary, and—by highlighting the banal amidst the extraterrestrial—eerily plausible. I can’t wait for the sequel.