Most of us love the occasional visit. We gussy up our guest rooms, happily cook meals and sit on our couches with guests, laughing and talking until the wee hours of the morning. At least that’s the way it works for a while. But eventually, even the most gracious of hosts feel the need to turn thoughts back to jobs and school and family and … normalcy.
So what happens if your houseguest is still there? What happens if they can’t leave?
Residents of Johannesburg, South Africa, know the feeling. About 20 years ago, a huge alien spacecraft parked itself over the city. For months, citizens waited for its occupants to come out and either say, “We come in peace” or “Die, earthling scum!” When neither happened, they decided to go up themselves and knock on the door. Inside, they found a race of insectoid creatures … starving, aimless—queenless, some scientists speculate. So, not wanting to be rude, Johannesburg welcomed them down to the planet and tried to make them feel—well, if not at home, at least comfortable.
Two decades later, Johannesburg’s ready for them to leave already. The aliens—now derogatorily referred to as “prawns”—are sequestered in a cramped, lawless ghetto in the middle of the city, where they live in makeshift shacks and pick through trash piled, seemingly, everywhere. Most humans think they deserve no better. Tension pops like bacon grease. In this country of longtime apartheid, where racial tensions have run deep for hundreds of years, blacks and whites finally have found something that unites them: Their growing hatred of prawns.
Johannesburg’s solution is to hire the huge, militaristic conglomerate Multi-National United to move the prawns—all 1.8 million of them by this point—to a new “relocation” (read: concentration) camp well outside the city. MNU, in turn, taps Wikus Van De Merwe—an undistinguished pencil pusher who happens to be married to the CEO’s daughter—to take on the daunting task.
Wikus launches into his duties with all the enthusiasm of a certain pointy-haired middle manager given a make-or-break shot at relevancy. He leads MNU enforcers into the ghetto and starts prodding prawns to sign eviction notices, clearing the way for their relocation. Along the way, he confiscates alien weapons (massively powerful things that, because they sport a biological trigger, are useless to humans), kills alien embryos and sets fire to shacks filled with prawn eggs.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
When Wikus is exposed to an alien-made liquid, he finds this career opportunity coming undone—and his whole body, too. He starts throwing up. Black goo trickles from his nose. His fingernails and teeth begin falling out. And he slowly begins to transform … into a prawn.
It’s hard to find much to praise when it comes to discussing Johannesburg’s human population. Even Wikus, hero of District 9, is a jerk much of the time, and he’s frustratingly slow to lose his prejudices. But when he finally does, it galvanizes him into a ruthless champion who’s willing to sacrifice himself to save a prawn family. He also loves his wife dearly and does everything in his power to reunite with her.
As for the prawns, Christopher Johnson, a single parent raising a prawn lad, spends 20 years manufacturing a vial of fuel to power the hovering mother craft. When MNU officials take it, he and Wikus form an unlikely alliance to get it back. Wikus’ reasons are largely selfish: Christopher has promised to turn him back into a human. Christopher, meanwhile, has his eyes set on rescuing his people from our increasingly hostile planet.
A petty crime lord is advised by a witch doctor to eat the body parts of prawns so he can absorb their power—advice he follows.
We hear that “interspecies prostitution” goes on within the slum, a point driven home by the appearance of suggestively dressed women. Wikus is falsely accused of having sex with aliens: Evidence consists of a fabricated photo. (Wikus is fully clothed and contact is obscured with a censor box.) A crime henchman, seeing Wikus, alludes to the picture, saying he did it “doggy style with a demon” and asking whether he wore a condom. Someone makes a reference to testicles.
“I can’t believe I get paid for this,” MNU’s military leader tells a beaten, bloodied alien. “I love watching you prawns die.”
The filmmakers must believe moviegoers enjoy watching, too, because District 9 boasts a sky-high body count of both prawns and humans—though, frankly, there’s often very little left of the bodies to count.
The aliens rarely use their own weapons, though early on we see some news footage of crashed trains and the like, suggesting the prawns sometimes caused serious damage outside the ghetto. For the most part, prawns trade their weapons for, literally, cat food. Wikus, however, kills scores of people with the horrific weapons—sometimes tearing off their arms and heads, but more often they’re messily vaporized, leaving behind just a spatter of blood and gore. (He can fire them because of his new alien appendage.)
Humans and prawns are punched, kicked, thrown, shot, burned, gassed, blown up and otherwise treated poorly. A human kills a prawn, execution style, with a bullet to the head. A pack of prawns rip apart a human with their tentacles. (Blood spouts when the man’s head comes off.) A bomb explodes in an office building. A small missile lodges in the forehead of a human before exploding. Prawns appear to watch the alien equivalent of a cockfight, with two small creatures battling to the death in a makeshift ring. We see a charred prawn corpse. A lab worker stretches what appears to be a prawn skin.
Wikus’ transformation is incredibly painful to watch. He pulls out his own fingernails, yanks free his teeth and, finally, begins to peel away skin. Holes and sores begin to cover his flesh—places where Wikus’ burgeoning prawn body inside is working its way out. In an effort to stop the transformation, Wikus steals an ax and nearly chops off his prawn arm. (He settles for a finger.)
Because of his unique status as a human/prawn hybrid, Wikus becomes a desirable commodity for MNU. Doctors and officials poke and prod his evolving arm with needles (causing Wikus to curse and scream in pain) and eventually whisk him to a secret, Josef Mengele-style lab filled with prawn corpses and body parts. There, they strap him to a chair and force him to fire captured weapons (zapping him with electricity to make him pull the trigger). Most often, the target is a slab of meat. But the final “test” is on a living, confused prawn, whom the weapon obliterates in a cloud of blood. (Bits of the carcass spray Wikus.) Eventually, MNU decides to “harvest” everything they can from Wikus—”strip him down to nothing,” someone says—a fate Wikus escapes by fighting his way free from hospital personnel and holding a scalpel to the throat of a doctor.
A minor human-run crime syndicate in the ghetto also tries to separate Wikus from his arm—twice, in fact—so the crime leader can eat it.
More than 130 f-words, supplemented by close to a dozen s-words. God’s name is abused twice; Jesus’ once. “B–tard,” “p—” and the British profanity “bloody” also are heard.
The aliens love cat food—so much so that they’re willing to make one-sided trades to get it. It’s not completely clear whether it’s because they simply like the taste of the stuff, or whether their bodies react to it as if it’s a recreational drug.
Someone drinks a glass of whiskey.
A prawn turns to face Wikus—and the camera—while urinating, so there’s probably some full-frontal alien nudity on display. (Whatever that may be!)
Vomit is a recurrent theme. Wikus, as he endures his painful transformation, throws up several times, including once all over a surprise birthday cake. He mentions that he might’ve defecated in his pants.
MNU’s CEO lies to his daughter. Wikus—not quite a good guy yet—knocks Christopher out, leaving him, for a while, in the hands of MNU mercenaries. When Christopher’s child asks where his dad is, Wikus lies, telling him that Christopher is just fine and will be along shortly.
Before I end this review by talking about the real-world racial issues District 9 explores by proxy, let me redirect your attention to what you’ve already read: “Violent Content.” “Crude and Profane Language.” And so on. This is a foul, messy and incredibly violent R-rated film—a movie that assaults the senses and has the power to make viewers shut their eyes, squirm in their seats and perhaps even run to the restroom for a breather.
That said, District 9 also comes with something you won’t find in such summer blockbusters as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It comes with a message.
The director, native South African Neill Blomkamp, ushers moviegoers into a brutal, ugly world that, for all the aliens running around, feels sadly familiar. It holds echoes of some of humanity’s most shameful, legalized crimes against itself: Blacks in apartheid-era South Africa. Jews in Nazi Germany. American Indians in the early years of the United States. History shows us how frighteningly easy it can be to marginalize people who look or act differently from us.
But when I watched District 9, I couldn’t help thinking back to one of history’s first written examples of mass persecution, alienation and genocide: Pharaoh’s mistreatment of the Israelites in Egypt.
There, in the land of Goshen, was a burgeoning alien race. They were so different from the Egyptians … so frightening to them, with their one God and ever-growing numbers. So Pharaoh isolated them, bullied them, enslaved them and killed their children. And the Israelites called up to heaven for someone to save them.
God sent Moses.
Christopher James tells Wikus how he longs to save his people, and he uses those words: “My people.” He is not a leader—we get a sense the prawns have none. But perhaps, given some time in the wilderness of space, he could become one.
District 9 is not religious. It’s not spiritual. If the filmmakers in any way intended these biblical parallels, they keep evidence of it mostly under wraps.
But it does suggest, however obliquely, a sense of divine destiny and universal morality. While we can see how racism, both covert and overt, took root in Johannesburg when the aliens began to outlive their welcome, it does not excuse it. And that—even in a film as hard and horror-filled as this—is saying something.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.