This story is about a huge alien spaceship having to dock over Johannesburg, South Africa for some kind of energy problems. The aliens can’t get home to their planet. They stay there for 20 years and end up being treated like illegal aliens or refugees in a loud and obvious political metaphor for today. They are herded into “District 9,” a walled off internment camp for the 1.2 million aliens from the mothership. It all looks like the refugee camps we’ve seen around the world, and it is ministered by the obvious U.N. parallel, the M.N.U., Multi-National United. This metaphor also carries xenophobic and racist overtones as we see in the movie all the signs and rules “segregating” aliens and humans: “Humans Only,” signs for bathrooms, etc. The aliens look like shrimp to humans, so they develop the “dehumanizing” name of “prawns” to refer to the aliens, just like racist lingo all over the world does: “Caffer” in apartheid, “N-word” in America, “Cracker” for white people, and on and on.
The hero, Wikus, a nerdish South African, begins his journey as a heartless government bureaucrat, more concerned about following protocol than about the unequal treatment of the aliens, such as the suppression of their reproduction by extermination of all their eggs, as well as the brutal treatment of the aliens, who have turned scavengers and ghetto-like in their behaviors. It is shot like a reality news show documentary to heighten the sense of reality, so that it’s not so much a sci-fi picture but closer to home, much like Cloverfield did with the handheld camcorder subjective view. Although this movie does have 3rd person omniscient moments to progress the story interspersed with the reality show style.
Anyway, so Wickus begins his journey as a heartless bureaucrat, but when he stumbles upon some strange liquid that splashes in his face, and begins to turn him into an alien, we see the obvious theme that xenophobic or racist fear of the other dissolves when we see “the other” or our enemy in ourselves, or when we see the world through the eyes of “the other.” No better way to accomplish that point than to literally turn into one of the “other.” Then of course, the government captures Wickus in order to experiment on him and discover how this genetic transformation can benefit the military to be able to use the alien weaponry, which only works with alien DNA. So Wickus discovers an entire laboratory where humans are experimenting on the aliens and cutting them up into scientific pieces for analysis, another strong parallel to Nazi, Japanese, and even American experimentation done on unwilling participants deemed as lives unworthy to be lived or as less than human. This movie does not place a lot of faith or trust in big government bureaucracy as a means for addressing the issues of illegal aliens, refugees or racial segregation.
One can surely understand why Wickus transforms and seeks to help an alien father and his son get back to the mothership in order to escape and bring back alien help from their planet. Especially, since Wickus by the end of the film, turns completely into an alien, waiting for the return of the aliens who will supposedly be able to turn Wickus back into a human. Wickus even ends up taking up arms as a “freedom fighter” against the M.N.U. forces trying to capture him and stop the aliens from leaving. Wickus will not doubt ever call the aliens “prawns” again.