D9 - The themes of District 9 by Neil Blomkamp

10 September 2023
"District 9," released in 2009, is a science fiction thriller directed by Neill Blomkamp (Chappie) and produced by Peter Jackson

The film was a critical and commercial success, earning four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It stands as a unique entry in the science fiction genre, blending elements of documentary-style filmmaking with traditional narrative techniques.

Originally, Neill Blomkamp was slated to direct a film adaptation of the video game "Halo," with Peter Jackson producing. However, when that project fell through due to budget constraints and studio hesitations, the duo decided to adapt Blomkamp's 2006 short film "Alive in Joburg" into a feature-length movie, which eventually became "District 9."

The film had a modest budget compared to other sci-fi blockbusters, but what it lacked in financial resources, it more than made up for in creativity and innovation. Shot in a documentary-style format, "District 9" utilized a mix of handheld camera work and special effects to create a sense of realism that was both jarring and immersive.

District 9 is not just a tale of aliens stranded on Earth; it's a multi-layered narrative that delves into themes of xenophobia, apartheid, and the ethics of scientific experimentation.

The film is set in an alternate Johannesburg, South Africa, where an alien spaceship has been hovering for over 20 years. The extraterrestrial beings, derogatorily referred to as "Prawns," are confined to a government camp known as District 9. 

The story follows Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an employee of Multi-National United (MNU), who is tasked with relocating the Prawns to a new camp. During the operation, Wikus is exposed to an alien substance that begins to transform him into a Prawn. As he becomes a hunted man, Wikus forms an unlikely alliance with a Prawn named Christopher Johnson, who has been working on a way to return to his home planet. Together, they navigate a world of government conspiracy, black market dealings, and social discrimination.

district 9 film themes

Contextual Background

Apartheid in South Africa

"District 9" was released in a post-apartheid South Africa, a country that had undergone decades of racial segregation and discrimination enforced through legislation by the National Party government. Apartheid, which lasted from 1948 to 1994, involved a system where non-white citizens were segregated from whites and did not have equal rights or opportunities. The echoes of this painful history are palpable in the film, particularly in the way the Prawns are treated—segregated, dehumanized, and exploited.

For example, the Prawns are confined to District 9, a squalid, fenced-off area reminiscent of the townships that were designated for non-whites during apartheid. Just as the apartheid regime used pass laws to restrict the movement of black South Africans, the Prawns in District 9 are also restricted and monitored, unable to leave the district without permission.

The Film as an Allegory

Neill Blomkamp, the director, is a South African native, and his intimate understanding of the country's history is evident in the film. "District 9" serves as an allegory for the apartheid era, but it also transcends that specific context to comment on broader issues of xenophobia, discrimination, and human rights abuses.

The film uses science fiction as a lens to examine real-world issues. By making the oppressed group a species of aliens, "District 9" allows viewers to confront the ugliness of discrimination and prejudice without the baggage of their own cultural biases. This makes the allegory both specific to South Africa and universally applicable.

For instance, the character of Wikus van de Merwe starts as a somewhat naive and prejudiced bureaucrat. His transformation—both literal and metaphorical—serves as a vehicle for the audience to explore themes of empathy and the fluidity of the "us vs. them" dichotomy. As Wikus becomes more Prawn-like, he experiences firsthand the brutalities and indignities that he once was a part of enforcing, making him a complex symbol for the cyclical nature of oppression and the potential for change.


The Treatment of the "Prawns" by the Humans

In "District 9," xenophobia is glaringly evident in the way humans treat the Prawns. From the onset, the aliens are not treated as sentient beings with rights or dignity but are instead herded into District 9, a slum-like area that lacks basic amenities. The conditions are squalid, and the Prawns are subjected to exploitation, both by criminal gangs and by the corporation Multi-National United (MNU), which is more interested in weaponizing the aliens' advanced technology than in their welfare.

The film opens with a series of interviews and news footage that immediately set the tone of public opinion about the Prawns: they are nuisances, dangerous, and less than human. This dehumanization justifies the harsh treatment they receive, much like how xenophobic attitudes can justify real-world policies that mistreat immigrants or minority groups.
The Derogatory Terms Used for the Aliens

Language plays a significant role in the perpetuation of xenophobia in the film. The aliens are derogatorily referred to as "Prawns," a term that dehumanizes them and reduces them to the level of pests. This language mirrors the derogatory terms often used to describe immigrants or ethnic minorities in the real world, serving to further marginalize them and make discriminatory practices against them more palatable to the general public.

Real-World Parallels

Immigration Policies

The treatment of the Prawns in "District 9" can be likened to the harsh immigration policies seen in various countries, where refugees and immigrants are often confined to camps or detention centers. These policies are frequently justified by stirring up fears about the "other," claiming that they pose a threat to national security, culture, or resources—much like how the Prawns are portrayed in the film.

Racial Profiling

The Prawns are subjected to constant surveillance and are treated as potential criminals, reflecting the racial profiling that occurs in many societies. Just as people of certain ethnicities may be disproportionately stopped, searched, or detained based on prejudiced beliefs, the Prawns are universally treated as dangerous and unworthy of basic rights.

In summary, the theme of xenophobia in "District 9" is not just a fictional plot point but a mirror held up to real-world issues. The film uses the plight of the Prawns to comment on the dangers of dehumanization and prejudice, making it a compelling study of how xenophobia manifests and is perpetuated.


The Segregation of District 9 from the Rest of the City

One of the most striking elements of "District 9" is the physical and social segregation of the Prawns. District 9 itself is a fenced-off, isolated area that is separate from the human-populated parts of Johannesburg. This segregation is a clear nod to the townships of apartheid-era South Africa, where non-white individuals were forcibly relocated. The film goes to great lengths to show the squalor and deprivation in District 9, contrasting it sharply with the more affluent areas of the city where humans live.

The Use of Private Military Contractors to Enforce Laws

Another aspect that echoes the apartheid era is the use of private military contractors, represented by MNU, to enforce the laws and regulations within District 9. These contractors operate with little oversight and are shown to be brutal and indifferent to the suffering of the Prawns. Their primary interest is in exploiting the Prawns for their advanced technology, rather than any form of social welfare or justice. This mirrors the way private and state security forces were used during apartheid to suppress dissent and maintain the status quo.

Apartheid in South Africa

The parallels to apartheid are unmistakable. Just as non-white South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in segregated townships, the Prawns are confined to District 9. The film even uses documentary-style interviews and footage to give a sense of historical weight to the events, much like the propaganda used by the apartheid regime to justify its actions.
Segregation in the U.S.

While "District 9" is deeply rooted in the South African experience, its themes also resonate with the history of racial segregation in the United States. The Jim Crow laws, redlining, and other forms of institutionalized racism have left a lasting impact on American society. The film's portrayal of a marginalized community subjected to systemic discrimination and violence has universal implications, making it relevant to discussions about racial inequality globally.

Ethical Dilemmas and Exploitation

The Character of Wikus van de Merwe

Wikus van de Merwe starts the film as a somewhat naive and complacent bureaucrat, tasked with overseeing the relocation of the Prawns to a new, even more restrictive area. He approaches his job with a blend of casual indifference and latent prejudice, viewing the Prawns as problems to be managed rather than sentient beings with rights and needs. However, his accidental exposure to an alien substance sets off a chain of events that force him to confront a series of ethical dilemmas.

As Wikus begins to transform into a Prawn, he becomes a subject of scientific interest for MNU, the very organization he worked for. He is no longer the enforcer but the enforced upon, and he experiences firsthand the dehumanizing and exploitative practices he was once a part of. His transformation is not just physical but ethical; he starts to see the Prawns, especially Christopher Johnson and his son, as individuals deserving of dignity and respect.

For example, when Wikus is captured by MNU and realizes they plan to dissect him for research, the horror of the situation is amplified by his newfound empathy for the Prawns, who have been subjected to similar treatment. This moment serves as a turning point for his character, forcing him to confront the ethical implications of his previous actions and beliefs.

Corporate Greed and Militarization

Multi-National United (MNU)

MNU serves as the corporate face of greed and exploitation in "District 9." Ostensibly a private military contractor tasked with managing the Prawn population, MNU has a darker agenda: to unlock the secrets of the aliens' advanced weaponry. This technology is bio-coded to the Prawns, rendering it useless in human hands. However, the corporation sees immense profit potential and military advantage in cracking this code, and they are willing to go to any lengths to achieve it.

Lab Experiments on Aliens and Wikus

The film reveals that MNU has been conducting secret experiments on the Prawns, attempting to understand their biology to harness their technology. When Wikus begins his transformation into a Prawn, he becomes invaluable to MNU because his hybrid state allows him to operate the alien weaponry. The corporation's immediate move to detain and experiment on Wikus, even at the cost of his life, underscores their ruthless pursuit of profit.

For example, when Wikus is captured and brought to MNU's labs, we see other Prawns in various states of dissection, clearly subjected to inhumane experiments. The scientists are shown to be more interested in Wikus's arm (which can operate alien weaponry) than in his well-being, highlighting the dehumanizing effects of corporate greed.

MNU's interest in the alien technology is not purely commercial; it's also militaristic. The corporation envisions a future where this advanced weaponry can be used to enforce and expand their interests, both on Earth and potentially beyond. This militarization is not just a threat to the Prawns but to humanity as a whole, as it represents an escalation in the potential for violence and conflict.

The film portrays this through the character of Colonel Venter, an MNU mercenary who relishes the opportunity to wield power and control. His brutal methods and lack of empathy for the Prawns encapsulate the dangers of allowing corporate interests to dictate military actions.

Survival and Adaptation

In a world that is inherently hostile to them, both the Prawns and Wikus van de Merwe find themselves in situations where they must adapt to survive. This theme is woven throughout "District 9," manifesting in various forms and situations that highlight the resilience and ingenuity of the characters.
Real Examples from the Film

Human Rights and Social Justice

The Prawns are subjected to medical experiments by MNU, echoing human rights violations seen throughout history, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study or experiments conducted during wartime. These actions underscore the desperate situation the Prawns find themselves in, where their very biology is commodified in a hostile environment.

Fear of the Unknown

MNU mercenaries, led by Colonel Venter, are quick to use lethal force against the Prawns. This is often motivated by a fear or misunderstanding of the aliens' intentions, reflecting how the unknown often triggers extreme survival instincts in humans, even when those instincts lead to unethical actions.

Media Manipulation

The news clips and interviews in the film often present a skewed perspective that favors the human point of view. This media manipulation serves as a survival tactic for MNU and the government, helping to justify their actions and maintain their control over both the Prawns and the general populace.

Moral Ambiguity

Wikus's journey encapsulates the theme of survival and adaptation in a morally complex way. Initially, he complies with MNU's unethical practices as a means of professional survival. However, as he begins to transform and empathize with the Prawns, he adapts his moral compass, taking actions that align more closely with ethical principles even if they put him at risk.

Survival and Adaptation in Focus: Christopher Johnson's Plan

Christopher Johnson, one of the Prawn characters, has been collecting fluid to power a small shuttle that can reach the mothership. His plan to leave Earth to get help for his people is a testament to the theme of survival and adaptation. Despite two decades of living in squalid conditions and facing constant exploitation, Christopher has not given up. He adapts to his circumstances by secretly working on a long-term plan to improve the fate of his people, showing incredible resilience and ingenuity.

Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of "District 9"

As the credits roll on "District 9," viewers are left with more than just the remnants of popcorn and the dimming of theater lights; they are left with questions, reflections, and a lingering sense of discomfort that challenges the status quo. This is the hallmark of a film that transcends its medium to become a cultural touchstone, a work of art that continues to resonate long after its initial release.

The genius of "District 9" lies not just in its technical achievements or its innovative storytelling, but in its fearless confrontation of themes that are as complex as they are uncomfortable. Directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson, the film serves as both a mirror and a window—reflecting societal prejudices and injustices while also offering a glimpse into what humanity could become if such issues are left unaddressed.

From the deeply ingrained xenophobia and the haunting echoes of apartheid to the ethical quagmires of corporate greed and scientific exploitation, "District 9" navigates a labyrinth of moral complexities with a deft hand. Characters like Wikus van de Merwe and Christopher Johnson serve as conduits for the audience, guiding us through a world that is at once alien and painfully familiar. Their journeys of survival and adaptation are microcosms of broader human struggles, encapsulating the resilience and ingenuity that define us as a species, as well as the darker impulses that threaten to undo us.


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My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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