When a UFO with malnourished aliens descends on Johannesburg, the aliens are collected in a slum outside the city. Manager Wikus van der Merwe is tasked to relocate them to a new area, but inside the slum there are greater challenges waiting for him.
Science fiction has always been a problem child, both in movies and books. The special effects always seem to take the upper hand in science fiction movies as an irresistible temptation for the filmmakers, and often deprive the movie of vitality, much like candy in real life. Science fiction books too are systematically ignored by critics who still carry an image in their mind of the pulp space opera of the 1930s.
But science fiction can be good (in books more often than in cinema) and on these occasions it can function as a mirror in which our image of the world and our values get transformed. Secretly, science fiction is always about the present, about present values and present struggles.
District 9 is such a film. It is an analogy for discrimination and slum life. It is actually quite blunt in its analogy. But District 9’s power comes from the original way it is presented in story form and from the gritty, down-to-earth realism of the way it is executed.
So here we have a UFO that got stranded not above New York but above Johannesburg, South Africa. It is the big unknown that raises the tension for everyone in the city. The humans break into the UFO and find lots of malnourished prawn-like aliens. This all happened 20 years ago. The aliens were unable to adapt to a human city and people just want to see them leave. They are living in a slum (district 9) at the edge of the city. The star of the movie is Wikus van de Merwe, who is in charge of relocating the aliens, but he finds out there are lots of secrets kept in District 9.
The movie starts out as a documentary. We see people commenting on the events that we are about to see unfolding. The story starts off running and keeps gathering momentum and in the final 30 minutes District 9 transforms itself into an exciting action movie in which special effects are used sparingly but very effectively. The special effects are generally used in a masterful way. The aliens are very realistic (think Gollum-like realism) and the UFO hangs ominously as a sword of Damocles above the scenes.
District 9 is a masterclass in storytelling and I can see this develop into a future classic.