The set up for District 9 is brilliant: an alien ship arrives and hovers over Johannesburg. After a few weeks of no activity, humans enter the ship and find it crowded with sick, malnourished, dying aliens. They ferry them to the surface and ultimately set up District 9, a refugee camp for the aliens, whom the humans derogatorily dub "prawns." Alien/human relations deteriorate until, after many years, the humans decide to relocate the aliens to another, remote area.
Wikus talks with an alien. See why they call them prawns?
After setting that scene, the film proceeds in documentary fashion, following Wikus van der Merwe, a bureaucrat charged with coordinating the relocation of the aliens, who now number over a million. These scenes reminded me of The Office, with Wikus showing the same kind of cheery incompetence that Steve Carell portrays. Wikus and his team enter the refugee camp, going door to door, urging the aliens to sign a notice of eviction, agreeing to be relocated. They are met with resistance, and end up killing several aliens. Wikus, while searching a house for weapons, accidentally squirts himself with a black, oily, alien substance, then takes the container for examination.
I have never been in a refuge camp or a South African shanty town, but I can certainly imagine that those places served as a model for this movie. The parallels abound of the humans' mistreatment of the aliens to the South Africans' treatment of blacks, or for that matter any group's treatment of those they deem inferior. It's only when the black substance begins to alter Wikus, turning him into an alien, that he begins to see things from their perspective, realizing the need to work together with the aliens toward their common desires. He begins to see them as individuals, as families, and has sympathy with their plight.
When the humans realize that with the alien DNA he has assimilated, Wikus can operate the powerful alien weaponry they have seized and, up to now, have not been able to use, he becomes a target; they want to use his genetic material to develop a means for humans to use the weapons. Wikus flees, and can only find refuge in District 9. He and the alien whose canister Wikus took team up to help each other out.
Signs such as these clearly recall "whites only" signs in South Africa and the southern U.S.
There is certainly some social commentary here, but it's almost too obvious and predictable to comment on. That does not detract, however, from the believable alien characters, and the exploration of the complex relationship between human and alien. The effects are brilliant, the action is top-rate (if a bit gory--but it's mostly aliens being dismembered, so that's OK, right?), and the story is solid. Like I said, the geek in me is predisposed to like this movie, but I think even a non-sci-fi fan can enjoy it. This might be one worth seeing again.
Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.