In a nutshell, this is Alien Nation for the Cloverfield generation – but also an action buddy movie filtered through specifically white South African angst.
In the early 1980s, a giant spaceship enters the Earth’s atmosphere and settles into a permanent position over Johannesburg. A few months later, the authorities break into the ship and find over a million insectoidal aliens in poor condition – and the ‘prawns’ wind up living in a shantytown known as District 9. In the alternate world present of the film – it’s not specified whether South African history has otherwise proceeded as in our timeline, so it seems as if there might still be white minority rule even if the presence of aliens who are a rung lower on the racial scale than blacks means that no one much notices apartheid any more – cheerful if nervous middle-management type Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is in charge of handing out eviction orders to the denizens of District 9 so they can be relocated to District 10, a concentration camp in the desert passed off as an ideal new town. During the fractious raid on the district, as Wikus is unable to hold back gung ho bigoted militarist Koobus Venter (David James), the clipboard-holder gets splashed with an alien fuel sample which alters his make-up so that he gradually turns into a prawn (with an intentional nod to Cronenberg’s The Fly, and a presumably unintentional one to the Doctor Who episode ‘Planet of the Ood’).
As it happens, a great cache of alien weaponry is around on Earth, useless to humans since the controls are synced to the species’ DNA – when Wikus becomes the only human on the planet who can fire the aliens’ big-zapper guns or operate their battle-mech suits, he is turned over for dissection by his nasty bigwig father-in-law (Louis Minnaar) but escapes to team up awkwardly with Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), a smarter-than-the-average-prawn alien who has plans for the infectious fuel to solve both their problems, which are exacerbated by a Nigerian gangster who wants to eat Wikus’s alien arm and take on his powers. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp, expanding his short film Alive in Jo’burg, started out by cutting vox pop interviews with locals referring to a recent influx of refugees from Zimbabwe with effects shots of an alien township.
This begins in mock-doc style, with Copley’s genially comic performance suggesting The Office (though Peter Watkins pioneered mock-doc style in grim s-f a generation earlier) and various academics, politicians and family members talking about Wikus in a manner which drops hints about what will happen to him – he’s either a hero or a traitor – in the course of the film. Slowly, it drops the documentary style and becomes a jittery, violent, impressive action picture in the Bourne style, combining low-tech seeming videography with spectacular monster and action effects. It’s seamless in its use of effects, and manages both the bitter satirical comedy and the large-scale comic booky action scenes. It struggles a bit to reconcile its allegorical elements with proper science fiction – some notions are vaguely thought-through (if the aliens’ tech is keyed to their DNA there’s some rationale for their fuel being a mutagen), but other elements are awkwardly ladled in for convenience (why and how the aliens come is as arbitrary as why and how one leaves at the end) and a million and a half prawns oddly drop out of the picture for the whole climax as Wikus fights with Venter’s goons (who explode when zapped) in a rampage throughout the district. It doesn’t harp on the buddy theme, but Wikus (who starts out happily burning alien eggs in a mass abortion) and Johnson (who sneers at human tech as rubbish) eventually achieve some mutual respect, though they are double-crossing each other until very late in the film, and only work together to pursue their own separate urges – to find a cure for creeping alienation or to pilot the mothership away from Earth.