Listen to this review!
District 9, the feature directorial debut of Neil Blomkamp, achieves what I believe the best science fiction aspires to: it uses the extraterrestrial to comment on Earth-bound problems, and challenges us to rethink our prejudices.
The nonlinear and complex plot needs a bit of explanation. Twenty years before the action of the movie takes place, a huge alien ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. After a significant period of silence from the alien ship, military teams cut their way in and discover nearly a million malnourished creatures on board. The aliens, though bipedal, have an exoskeleton that makes them look like insects or crustaceans, which leads to the derogatory epithet “prawns.” A refugee camp called “District 9” was created below the ship, and over time it has become a slum. The prawns are afforded only limited civil rights, and signs outside the district limit public spaces and even some businesses to “Humans Only.”
In the present, Wikus Van Der Merwe is an employee of Multi National United (MNU), which has been charged with moving the alien population of now nearly two million from District 9 to a camp 250 km away. Though a few humans argue for fair treatment and legal protections for the aliens, most are glad to see them pushed out of the city center. MNU uses intimidation, deception, and eventually military force to carry out the evictions.
While searching a shack in District 9, Wikus is accidentally sprayed in the face with fluid from an alien device, which initially just makes him ill. Over the next 72 hours, however, the fluid starts to transform Wikus into an alien, beginning with his left hand, which becomes an alien claw. When MNU discovers Wikus’s transformation, he is taken to a secret laboratory and forced to participate in horrifying experiments. MNU scientists eventually discover Wikus’s DNA has mixed with alien DNA—giving him an extremely valuable ability.
The aliens brought powerful hand-held weapons that apparently were confiscated in the initial evacuation of the mother ship. Humans attempting to use the weapons have been stymied by an impressive piece of bioengineering: The alien weapons require alien DNA to work. Because he carries a blend of human and alien genetic material, Wikus can operate the weapons. The rest of the film follows his attempts to stay out of MNU custody and find a way to stop the transformation.
Though the human/alien Wikus is rejected by his family and coworkers, Christopher Johnson (the alien who built the device that caused the infection) promises to help restore Wikus to fully human. Christopher also is very protective of his son, contrary to MNU statements that prawns have no emotional attachment to their offspring. In a way, Christopher is the film’s most humane character.
The idea that alien weapons require alien DNA to work is intriguing and appears to be based on “smart gun” technology that received much attention in the late 1990s. In this context, a smart gun is one that can only be fired by a specific person, so a police officer could not be attacked with his or her own gun. While some work has been done on fingerprint and voice print recognition, the only currently available system requires the legitimate user to wear a magnetic ring, which unlocks the gun’s firing mechanism.
In District 9, Wikus can operate alien weapons because his DNA has mixed with alien DNA, which seems like quite a stretch. While there is a lot of overlapping DNA among species on Earth (recent work suggests humans share about 95% of our DNA with chimpanzees), it seems unlikely the genetic material of an alien race would be similar enough to ours for mixing to occur. But one way alien and Earth-bound life could have the same basic genetic material is if life actually evolved elsewhere and arrived on Earth in a comet or meteor, an idea known as panspermia. While no evidence of extraterrestrial bacteria has been discovered, recent work has found an amino acid, glycine, in the tail of a comet, which shows complex molecules appear capable of surviving in space for long periods. However, real precedent exists for foreign genetic material being acquired by a host organism. Mitochondria (the cellular organelle responsible for energy production) have their own genetic material, leading scientists to conclude mitochondria were separate bacteria that developed a symbiotic relationship with eukaryotic cells long ago.
Scientists and science teachers might be troubled by District 9’s portrayal of researchers. The MNU scientists show no regard for their human or prawn subjects: They force Wikus to participate in experiments, administer powerful electric shocks to him, and kill many aliens for no reason. This portion of the film is very hard to watch, and it should serve to remind viewers that scientists do have a history of abusing research subjects. Vulnerable populations such as prisoners and conscientious objectors have been exploited by researchers; the rules governing research on human subjects exist because of those abuses. Science teachers could use this part of the film to generate a discussion on the history of past abuses, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and the protections now in place.
Finally, the title and location central to the film, District 9, is a reference to a real location in Cape Town, South Africa, District 6. District 6, an ethnically diverse section of Cape Town, was declared “whites only” in 1966; by 1982, more than 60,000 people were forcibly relocated approximately 25 km away. This retelling of the story, complete with “humans-only” signs, is a powerful reminder of humanity’s failures to treat each other with basic human dignity.
Note: District 9 is rated R “for bloody violence and pervasive language” by the Motion Picture Association of America, many of your students will not be able to see it without a parent or guardian. Also, be sure to check your school district’s policy on showing segments of R-rated films before using any clips in the classroom.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
More Blick on Flicks »