Speculative storytelling (not to mention its fandom) has a tempestuous relationship with metaphor. On the one hand are those who cultivate it as a marker of legitimacy in relation to the mainstream: think the Marxist-socialist subtext of The Time Machine, or the mirroring of man's attitudes in Planet of the Apes. On the other hand, there are those who would reserve the fantastic as a stage, upon which metaphors may be enacted, but not necessarily meaning anything in and of itself. In other words, the generation starship isn't a womb or an ovipositor; the actions and interactions of its inhabitants, however, are fair game for interpretation. See Scott Westerfeld's rebuttal to this New York Times review of a Kelly Link collection; sometimes zombies are just friggin' zombies. The resonance comes from how we—in the story, or outside of it—react to them. (The third hand (we are talking about the fantastic, here) is reserved for those who value "pure storytelling," and either ignore or disdain efforts to read much into it, for reasons which may be good or bad.)
District 9's metaphors are both its strength and its fatal flaw. The capsule description, which surely most everyone had heard before they saw the film, sounds brilliant: a crippled alien ship appears in the skies, jettisons some piece of itself, then sits motionless for more than a month. Eventually the humans find a way into the ship and bring its inhabitants down to Earth, setting them up in a refugee camp which gradually becomes a prison camp. The brilliant part, of course, is that this all happens over and within Johannesburg, South Africa. Using aliens to comment on human race relations is hardly new; Alien Nation did it, and Enemy Mine, and there are countless examples from SF literature. But it's difficult to imagine a setting or a history more charged than this, which is what makes it so disappointing that the thematic subtext of District 9 is so completely fumbled. If only it were the only fumble.
Meet white South African Wikus van de Merwe, a charmingly dopey bureaucrat working for Multinational United. MNU is the contracted custodian of District 9, the prison camp of the title (and, in case we were to miss the metaphor, a reference to District 6 of Cape Town). MNU plans to relocate the aliens to a new, more controlled facility in a rural area; Wikus is put in charge of serving eviction notices within the camp. The aliens—dubbed "Prawns" by their resentful human hosts—are man-sized and bipedal, but combine insectoid, crustacean, and reptilian characteristics. They're well done (the effects throughout are done by WETA Workshop, the effects team of Peter Jackson, who produced the film), though one could wish they felt a bit more repulsive; as it is, they're on the edge of ugly-cute, and our sympathy (if not our empathy) is with them almost immediately.
The film is shot in a shaky-cam documentary style, interspersed with interview snippets, clips from television news, and footage from news choppers and security systems. It's an effective tool both for infodumping and for keeping the viewer slightly off-balance; and when the camera follows Wikus and his team into District 9, it's an unblinking gaze at their casual brutality. They discover a shack filled with alien eggs, and burn them all; they beat or shoot anyone who hesitates to sign an eviction notice. Wikus's mask of civility begins to slip as he encounters resistance, gleefully uncovers weapons caches, and accidentally sprays himself with a black fluid found in a hidden secret room.
It's this fluid that begins Wikus's transformation into an alien, a transformation as scientifically impossible as it is crucial to the narrative. Soon his left arm has become an alien limb, and he is kidnapped from the hospital by MNU, which (of course) has a secret weapons lab for testing stolen alien technology. The weapons are coded to alien DNA, which means the now-hybrid Wikus—or at least his arm—is a valuable commodity. When MNU decides to cut it off, Wikus manages to escape and go on the run. The problem being that there is nowhere for him to hide; the company concocts false evidence of him engaging in sex acts with aliens, so as to make him untouchable. Even his wife believes the worst of him.
So Wikus is driven back to District 9, where he finds his way into the alien resistance, and runs afoul of the Nigerian gang running the trade within the camp. These Nigerians . . . they are a problem. As many have already pointed out (see Nnedi Okorafor's response to the film), Blomkamp is trading in some offensive stereotyping here; these are not just opportunistic criminals, they are also superstitious cannibals who believe that by consuming the aliens they can absorb their power. There's a parallel with MNU, true, in that both groups want to chop off Wikus's limb in order to gain its power. But while evil corporations also make for convenient and lazy cardboard villains, corporations are not people. Wikus's employers and their mercenaries may come direct from central casting, but it's difficult to see who this depiction is damaging to. In a film which seems to be trying to talk about race, the presence of the Nigerians is confusing at best and offensive at worst. If, as some have argued, there were no sympathetic humans at all in the film, perhaps—perhaps—this could be justified, but this is simply not the case. To head into spoiler territory for a minute: by the end of the film, we see Wikus's coworker Fundiswa expose MNU's experiments on the aliens and their technology, and Wikus's wife manages to work past her horror at his transformation to express faith in him and his actions. Wikus's own psychological shift is less selfless, but also supports the reading that there is some good in humanity; that the film singles out the Nigerians as a group which lacks it is troubling, to say the least.
Beyond this, though, the presence of the Nigerians creates logic problems. What sort of a camp is MNU running here, where criminals are allowed to operate openly? More than once in the film MNU demonstrates firepower enough to have removed the Nigerians by force. And if not them, what's to prevent the aliens, with their hidden weapons, from forcing the Nigerians to work for them? Why is the camp (and Johannesburg in general) so easy for Wikus and the aliens to move in and out of? After the first few incidents of alien crime in the city proper, you would expect the company's contract to be put under review, if not suspended. And why is it that no one seems to be looking for that fallen piece of the spaceship?
The way the logic of the film unravels suggests that the creators would prefer we look on this as a simple action film, and certainly it works on that level; when Wikus begins working with an alien named Christopher and his/her/its (the film never makes the reproductive means of the aliens clear) child, the machine guns and alien vaporizers start getting a heavy workout. There are some thrilling battle scenes, but the problem is that this action film has pretensions of being about more than that, and it can't manage it. When Christopher freezes upon finding the body of a fallen friend, it's a scene void of feeling. We know we're supposed to feel something—it's a familiar move, done almost by-the-numbers—but again, the film hasn't managed to earn our empathy.
As Wikus, Sharlto Copley is one of the film's strengths, and his metamorphosis—the psychological one—is among the film's more successful arcs. Wikus starts out as a character who protects his dignity by pretending not to have any, but as he begins to change both pretense and reality are stripped away. At bottom, though, it's self-interest that drives Wikus's actions (and reactions) throughout, even the ones which seem noble and heroic; and for every one of those, there's another that's moronic and short-sighted. Even the climactic battle he fights to help the aliens is motivated by his hopes for his own future.
It's too bad. Despite the breath of fresh air of seeing a major science fiction film that's not set in Los Angeles or New York, District 9 turns out to be nothing special or even particularly good. The filmmakers never made the hard decisions about how race and species connect and conflict, preferring to fall back on the shoot 'em up formula. Thematically, the film is somewhat like the aliens' massive ship, hovering over a metaphor without ever actually engaging with it.
David J. Schwartz's fiction has appeared in numerous venues; his novel, Superpowers, was nominated for a Nebula Award. He lives in St. Paul and blogs at http://snurri.livejournal.com.