Synopsis (with spoilers) and review below the cut.
Alien boat people show up over Johannesburg, then become the latest oppressed minority in the city’s shantytowns (the titular District 9). Twenty years pass, after which the South African government finally decides that maybe having alien insectoid welfare cases living in the capitol city isn’t such a good idea, so they hire Halliburton to relocate them to an interment camp outside the city.
Chief of the relocation operation is a weaselly bureaucrat-type guy named Wikus. During the operation, Wikus stumbles across what is apparently the the only intelligent or ambitious alien (or “prawn”) in the whole place – the rest being content to scavenge for garbage and cat food – who’s distilling half a liter of alien rocket fuel in his shack. Unfortunately for the bureaucrat, the rocket fuel also slowly turns humans into prawns, as he finds out once the canister sprays him in the face.
Once Dick Cheney finds out that Wikus is turning into a prawn, he orders him to be vivisected, since the transformation allows him to operate the alien’s inexplicably massive arsenal that’s laying around District 9 and somehow his body tissues will enable Halliburton to rule the world. However, security isn’t as tight as it probably should be at ol’ Darth Cheney’s facility, and Wikus escapes and decides to help the smart alien and his adorable crustacean son get their giant spaceship working again so they can get the hell off of our cruddy blue planet.
To this end, he betrays Halliburton (and the rest of humanity, I guess), gets the alien rocket fuel/mutagen back, has a big shootout with Gary and his Blackwater mercenary team while piloting a convenient prawn-styled suit of power armor, and almost has a heroic death, thus enabling Chris Anderson the alien (really) and his kid to fly up to the giant ship and GTFO.
That’s the movie in a nutshell – a great disappointment all around. The idea of refugee aliens living amongst humans is fascinating, and the first 30 minutes sets up the scenario masterfully, with fake documentary and news footage covering the arrival and first 20 years of alien cohabitation. The prawns are convincing, and the main character is a suitably unlikeable bureaucrat. But after that, the story devolves into a weird and implausible tale where the viewer is supposed to sympathize with the alien cause by making basically all the humans variously stupid, racist, or vicious.
Call me old fashioned, but when it comes to humans versus space bugs, I side with humanity – warts and all. I understand that the story is supposed to be allegorical – a story about apartheid – but I’m a literal movie-watcher, and if it can’t overcome my native anti-bug bias to get the point across, it’s a failed effort. Maybe if they were space cat-women or something…
Not to mention the plot holes. Why would alien small arms be so important to the Halliburton clone? Sure, they blow people up, but so do human-made weapons. Why was there only one smart and/or ambitious alien? One alien spends 20 years distilling some juice (one canister of which is apparently enough to power a giant mothership, as well as turn humans into prawns) and is also an expert engineer and space pilot, while other million-plus of his race rummage through garbage and have sex with human women? Why does Halliburton roll super-deep (dozens of MRAPs, helicopters, platoons of mercenaries) into District 9 to carry out the eviction mission, but when Wikus-the-great-treasure-of-world-domination goes on the lam, they only send Gary and his three mercenary pals after him?
Finally, I found the whole concept of the movie – human has to turn into alien and turn against his vile race to prove his humanity! – vaguely offensive, as it puts forward some sort of cultural self-loathing, mushy multiculturalism-as-savior ideal.
The plot would’ve been much better served without the ridiculous alien transformation angle, as well as the anti-PMC angle, and stuck with the much more interesting implications of human-alien cohabitation.