In 1982, it seems, a huge spaceship arrived on Earth and still hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa. Inside are a million malnourished aliens, former slaves, that humans call Prawns. They are relegated to a camp called District Nine, which turns into a slum. The government hires a weapons manufacturer called Multinational United to relocate them to another camp, hiring Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar) and his son-in-law Wikus van de Merwe (Sharto Copley) to arrange it.
Meanwhile, three aliens, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), his son CJ, and his friend Paul are searching a District Nine garbage dump for synthesized alien fuel. It is kept in Paul’s shack until Wikus comes to serve Paul with a notice and accidentally sprays it on his own face. Paul is killed by Koobus Venter (David James), the sadistic mercenary sent to capture Wikus, who begins to mutate into a Prawn. The fact is discovered in the hospital, and he is sent to a lab, where cruel researchers seek to discover if he can operate Prawn weapons. Wikus escapes and is hunted. A story is spread that he has contracted a deadly disease from copulating with aliens. His wife is devastated.
Wikus hides out in District Nine, discovering that Christopher has the dropship—the mothership’s command module—under his shack. Christopher tells Wikus that the confiscated fuel would help him reactivate the dropship. If he can get to the mothership, he can cure Wikus and stop his transformation. Wikus tries to buy weapons from a Nigerian arms dealer named Obesandjo (Eugene Wanangwa Khumbanyiwa) who wants to eat Wikus’ transformed arm because he thinks it will give him alien powers. But Wikus is able to use the alien weapons, grabs a collection of them, and uses them to escape.
Wikus and Christopher invade the laboratory and take the fuel, but after seeing the barbaric lab technicians’ experiments, including their vivisection of Paul, Christopher tells Wikus he must go for help immediately and cannot undo Wikus’ mutation right away. Wikus knocks him down and tries to fly the dropship himself but is shot down by Venter’s troops. Venter captures them both, but Obesandjo’s gang attacks the military convoy and captures Wikus so Obesandjo can cut his arm off.
CJ, hidden in the dropship, activates the mothership and a mechanized battle-suit in Obesandjo’s lair. Wikus takes the suit and stays behind to fend off the mercenaries, buying time for Christopher to take off in the mothership and seek help from the homeworld. Venter is about to execute Wikus when the refugee aliens attack en masse and dismember Venter alive. Christopher makes it to the mothership and takes off. Humanity wonders if he will return to take away the refugees or return with an army to declare war on Earth. The truth about the human barbarities comes out and the aliens are moved to District Ten. Wikus is now fully alien and sends metal flowers anonymously to his wife.
This is a refugee story—which Africans know a thing or two about—writ interplanetary. The aliens in Alien Nation were largely accepted into human society and called Newcomers because they looked pretty human. Because these aliens look like animals they are locked up in a compound and called Prawns. The movie was directed by Neill Blomkamp, his first, and produced by Peter Jackson and Carolyne Cunningham, a co-production of New Zealand, the US, and South Africa. Because a previous production with Blomkamp fell through, Jackson gave him thirty million dollars and told him to make what he wanted. It reads like found footage of a news story. The whole thing is pretty horrific, but powerful, like History. It was a financial success and Blomkamp went on to do two more SF films. It received four Oscar nominations.
In a movie about good aliens, the bad guys are human, and David James as Colonel Venter was sufficiently brutal and sadistic. District Nine was named after District Six, from which 60,000 Blacks were removed to make it Whites Only during Apartheid. Wikus becomes more humane as he becomes less human. The aliens were designed by Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop but made by a company in British Columbia. A humans-only poster campaign was launched with a phone-number to call to report alien sightings. They got 2,500 of them. The film received rave reviews, but it was criticized by the Nigerian government because of a villain from Nigeria with a name similar to that of a former president. It was also criticized because the hero is a White South African, though his enlightenment was pretty much what the story was about.
The Prawns were particularly fond of cat food. Because there were cats on the label, they thought there was cat-meat inside. As it turns out, one of the producers, from Vancouver, BC, used to use cat food as bait when trapping prawns. The film is full of dirty words in Afrikaans. The Prawns are seven feet tall, but when Wikus turns into one he retains his six-foot height. It was Sharlo Copley’s first acting job. All the voices of the Prawns were spoken by Jason Cope, and almost all their dialog was ad-libbed. All the shacks that appear in District Nine were real shacks in Soweto, Johannesburg. The mutilated animal carcasses in the street were already there.