Last Call

You need to watch the most important sci-fi movie on Hulu before it leaves next week

At the beginning of District 9, Neil Blomkamp's 2009 sci-fi movie, the faux-documentary expresses surprise that the movie’s aliens landed not in New York or Chicago, but Johannesburg, South Africa.

But Blomkamp had been planning the idea for years, starting with a short film he made in 2006. That preparation paid off, and District 9 still has the power to astonish years later. Given its remarkably short time on Hulu (it arrived on February 1 and leaves February 9), it really is worth watching — or rewatching. Here's why.

At the core of the movie is Sharlto Copley as Wikus van de Merwe. Wikus is a friendly-but-awkward chap and an employee with Multinational United (or MNU), a quasi-governmental military corporation in charge of the city's alien population (referred to as prawns due to their bug-like appearance).

Once aliens landed in Johannesburg and it became clear that they needed desperate aid, the South African government ghettoized them and forced them to live in poverty. Now it wants to remove them from the center of the city and forcibly send them to what amounts to a concentration camp. Wikus is the smiling face of this cruelty.

Sharlto Copley is District 9's beating heart.Sony Pictures/Columbia /Tristar Sony Pictures Entertainment

One need not look far to see where Blomkamp’s inspiration came from. The movie’s title is a reference to an actual place in South Africa: Cape Town’s District 6, a working-class neighborhood that was deemed a slum by South Africa’s apartheid government and saw over 60,000 black residents forcibly removed.

There are differences. District 6, while poor, also had a vibrant cultural life that is today captured in a museum. The alien encampments of District 9 are shown to be places of hellish poverty controlled by human gangsters who treat the aliens almost as poorly as MNU does.

There's no inter-species unity to be found here.Sony Pictures/Columbia /Tristar Sony Pictures Entertainment

But the point comes across crystal clear as soon as Wikus enters District 9 to hand out eviction notices. At first, Wikus is shown having mild concern for the treatment of the aliens during their removal, proudly declaring that civilians have authority over private military contractors and questioning how many bullets they are bringing.

But once the action starts Wikus is as vicious as any of them, gleefully killing alien hatchlings and posing for photos with his bounty. While he’s not pointing a gun at any prawns, the derogatory nickname for the aliens, Blomkamp makes the point that his forms are just as dangerous. When Wikus starts using regulatory language as a means of removing an alien from their child, the audience can practically see the knife twisting in his mind.

The aliens in District 9 are meant to look off-putting at first, but their depths are soon revealed.Sony Pictures/Columbia /Tristar Sony Pictures Entertainment

It’s fascinating to watch, but Bloomkamp’s plot twist with alien technology elevates the movie above other science fiction and fantasy attempts to tackle serious issues. Wikus doesn’t just come to understand the indignities of their daily life, he learns what it means to be unable to escape them.

Watching District 9 in 2021 is a sobering experience. Refugee resettlement hit record lows in 2020, with only 22,770 people out of an estimated 1.4 million finding new homes. The issues of racism and xenophobia in South Africa that District 9 directly addresses have not gone away either, with attacks on non-nationals still all-too-common in the country. District 9 is still perfectly watchable for its entertainment value alone, but it’s sadly all too relevant.

District 9 is streaming on Hulu in the U.S. through February 8.