The film's conceit – sticking a million-plus misplaced extraterrestrials in the middle of Johannesburg – is promising. But from there, the story is built on a series of cheats, the biggest one being the rather loud absence of the word that, like it or not, comes to mind once you set the story in South Africa: Apartheid.
It's implied that the District is a stand-in for the Soweto of our own reality. But, again, that's a cheat: we're robbed of a potentially more potent commentary because of that substitution. Getting viewers to say, “Wow, humans are capable of great inhumanity” isn't as ground-breaking as co-writer and director Neill Blomkamp might want to think. And to think that any government would be handling a First Contact situation (as opposed to the internment of its' own citizens) without the U.S., United Nations or any other coalition tugging at its' sleeve isn't sci-fi – it's flat-out ridiculous.
The story kicks off 28 years after the visitors' arrival on Earth, but it's not really about them – our protagonist, and literal tour guide is well-meaning office schmuck Wilkus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a Christopher Guest character in way, way, way over his head. Wilkus is placed in charge of serving eviction notices to the District's residents and selling them on the new
While investigating a squatter's shack, Wilkus is sprayed with some of “the fluid,” a crucial biological material. Not only does it power the aliens' rather impressive weaponry, but it's the key to the escape plan of one Christopher Johnson, as a singularly clever Prawn is dubbed. Christopher has been plotting for 20 years to get the hell off this planet, and needs the juice to power his getaway craft and revive his people's mothership, still hovering over Johannesburg.
It's worth noting that Copley co-produced the inspiration for District 9, Alive In Joburg, a short film where the aliens get a fairer shake from Blomkamp; one of them gets to talk directly to the unseen documentarians and express a motivation (they just want to get off this planet) and a problem (our atmosphere is toxic to their physiology). There was a similar scene in the trailer for District, but it's not in the theatrical cut, which makes Christopher's positioning as the Noble Other/Savage really troubling.
Why is Christopher so much smarter than his fellow refugees? How could he be the only one trying to find a way out, or to know/care enough to clothe himself in a “human” manner? And, if humans and Prawn are able to understand each other by the time the “footage” is released, why did the documentarians – because that's how the first half of this film is framed – exclude interviews with any of the aliens in favor of black South Africans telling us how threatened they feel, and white South Africans denigrating the species as a whole?
We get no insight into any of this, because the movie retreats, very jarringly, into the realm of summer schlock after Wilkus' infection. As he becomes a test subject, a fugitive, and a less-than-altruistic ally to Christopher, their characters run headlong into caricatures: a wheelchair-bound, voodoo-influenced Nigerian gangster exploiting the Prawns for cash and weapons while eating their body parts on the advice of a “priestess”; and a xenophobic mercenary charged with turning Wilkus in to his slimy CEO father-in-law.
Copley isn't bad at all – his Wilkus is a terrific anti-hero. But could Christopher and his son, both CGI characters who summon up more “humanity” than the real-life Shia LaBouf, really have been less palatable figures for the audience and creative team to rally behind? Because the story we get, with awesome-looking alien tech and a white hero standing up for the Oppressed, doesn't end up going anywhere Torchwood didn't just saunter through with more brains and less blood; at least Russell T. Davies would've given Christopher's race a name. By the time the film reaches its (open-ended) conclusion, you're left hoping the visitors would return for vengeance – so that you could root for them.