The following contains spoilers for District 9.
It’s often said that science fiction offers up a mirror to our own society – reflecting our latent fears back at us, and allowing us to confront the darker aspects of our nature. Much of the time, though, sci-fi cinema’s reflection tends to be a bit soft-focus: in James Cameron’s Avatar, for example, it’s the corporate-military types who are the villains, while the average Joe hero’s the one who befriends the aliens and helps defend their planet.
As played by Sam Worthington, Avatar‘s main character provides a bit of comfort for the rest of us – sure, some of us are cruel, violent and materialistic, but there are plenty of nice humans out there like Jake Sully.
Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 – coincidentally released in 2009, the very same year as Avatar – does something comparatively rare. Its protagonist, one Wikus van der Merwe, starts the movie as a selfish, less-than-heroic character and, even by though he’s changed by its end, he still isn’t what you’d call selfless. In other words, District 9 offers up your typical sci-fi mirror, but steadfastly refuses to provide the kind of reassuring hero with a moral compass that is generally expected from a mainstream genre film.
The parallels between District 9‘s premise and real world refugee crises are easy to see. It’s set in an alternate universe where a gigantic spaceship brought a cargo-load of ragged, emaciated aliens to Johannesberg back in the 1980s; the story then jumps to the present day, where the aliens are corralled into squalid ghettos, or districts.
Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, District 9 then introduces us to Wikus, a clipboard-carrying corporate weasel whose job is to liquidate one ghetto and funnel all the aliens to another.
Sharlto Copley, in his first screen role, is perfect as Wikus: like The Office‘s David Brent, he clearly loves the attention of the documentary crew as he guides them round an alien district. With his slicked-down hair and tiny moustache, he’s oblivious to the horrors he brings down on the aliens (or ‘Prawns’, as the humans call them): violently aborting unborn aliens to keep down their numbers; terrorizing aliens in their own makeshift homes; luring aliens to a new slum with the promise of cat food.
Wikus’ 15 minutes of fame are thrown through a loop when he’s exposed to what can only be described as a spray can full of alien goo. The substance gets to work on Wikus’ DNA, gradually transforming him a mutant human-prawn hybrid – in other words, Wikus becomes the very thing he loathes. A more conventional movie might use this incident as a kind of road-to-Damascus type moment for its protagonist – the first step on Wikus’ path to salvation.
Instead, Wikus remains committed to the role of selfish idiot. Hunted by his former colleagues, Wikus retreats to District 9, where he joins forces with Christopher (a mo-capped Jason Cope), an alien who claims he can cure Wikus of his mutation. Christopher wants to use a small spacecraft to reach the alien mothership (which still hovers over the city) and use it to make contact with his home planet; Wikus helps out, purely because he thinks he can get hold of the cure that will take him back to his human, privileged life.
Most of us would like to believe that we have kindness and empathy bred into us, but the truth is, we’re probably far more like Wikus van der Merwe than we’d like to admit. Wikus is the sci-fi embodiment of much that is bad about the human species. He’s not an out-and-out monster, like a dictator or a mass murderer, but rather, he represents the kind of mundane cruelty that leads to slum landlords, loan sharks or governments making ‘hostile environments‘ for migrants.
District 9 was adapted from Neill Blomkamp’s own short film, Alive In Joberg, in which the director cleverly cut real footage of slums and talking heads with his own visual effects of alien creatures. Both films deal with real-world 20th century history in South Africa – most specifically, District Six, an area of Cape Town where some 60,000 residents were forcibly moved in the 1970s. In a more general, universal sense, though, District 9 provides a broad depiction of the psychological break that leads to such unbelievable cruelty.
As Sharlto Copley himself once told Den of Geek UK Wikus represents a side of human nature that often remains hidden in plain sight:
“Most people are trying to hide this part of themselves that they’re ashamed of. I’m a wonderful human being. Aren’t you? Isn’t everyone? […]It’s like, are people sometimes selfish? Yes. Would you, ultimately, mostly put yourself first in most situations in your life? Yes. Would you like to be thought of as someone who wouldn’t? Yes. Are there occasions where you might do the right thing for your fellow man? Yes.”
Eventually, Wikus does do the right thing – he defends Christopher and his son from military forces and almost dies in the process. By this point, though, Wikus is barely human at all: on the sliding scale of mutation, he’s far more alien than man. It’s only when Wikus has lost everything – his status, his wife his stake in human society – that he begins to feel any kind of connection to Christopher and the species he so cruelly treated.
It all stands in stark contrast to Avatar’s Jake Sully, whose similar leap into an alien body has a more intoxicating effect. Sully’s bewitched by the Na’vi’s simple, harmonious way of life, and falls in love with the chief’s daughter.
In District 9, Wikus loathes what he becomes pretty much the whole time, and actively kicks against every opportunity to redeem himself, right up until the very last minute. It’s partly what makes District 9 such a darkly, violently funny film – and also a starkly honest one.