What is the theme of the film District 9, and how do the filmmakers express this? Please show examples.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Part of District 9's impact has to do with the "realism" of the way the prawns are treated. That is, the reaction the humans have to the refugee prawns is driven by basic human traits such as greed, fear, and hatred. This inevitably leads to the emergence of several themes. I'll just list the ones that strike me:

1. The omnipresence of capitalist greed. The prawns are housed in giant shanty towns that are run by a giant conglomerate that wants to harvest the prawns's alien technology. To this end, they perform horrifying medical experiments on the prawns, seeking to understand how their machines are connected to their DNA.

2. Xenophobia. The prawns are aliens, and are treated by the humans (and the protagonist, Wikus, at first) as subhuman. There is a kind of comic element in the prawn's love of canned cat food, but it is clear that the prawns are a stand in for blacks under apartheid in South Africa.

3. Exceptionalism. The prawns are helpless because their leadership class is mysteriously missing. When we meet Christopher later in the movie, it is clear that he must be part of this missing class; he is able to advocate for the prawns while working to revive the command ship and move them to safety. If we understand the movie as an allegory about apartheid, than perhaps Christopher is an alien version of Nelson Mandela.

4. The worship of technology: Not only do the humans want to monetize the alien's technology, the tech itself is a kind of "deus ex machina." As in many science fiction movies, Christopher manages to get the control module fixed and unleash its power at the climax of the film.

5. Empathy: Wikus is redeemed by his exposure to the fluid that alters his DNA. It is only by slowy turning into a prawn that he understands what their situation truly is, and this understanding makes him a better person. The closing shot of Wikus, almost fully a prawn, making metal roses for his wife suggests that his transformation has not erased his better human traits.

This is a fascinating film, and I'm sure there are many more themes that can be discussed!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As with many great films, District 9 has multiple themes that can be found throughout the film. A central theme that always quickly comes to mind is a theme of xenophobia and/or racism. Xenophobia is a fear and/or hatred of strangers, of foreigners, or of anything that is strange or foreign. In the film's case, the xenophobia can be seen in the strained relations between the humans and aliens.

The xenophobia is so extreme that it leads to another theme: alienation. The various groups are kept apart from each other by law and by their own fears. Signs populate the area saying things like "no humans allowed."

I also believe that themes of justice and/or injustice are present in the film. The film undermines the idea that justice is blind, because the justice system in place grossly favors the wealthy. The poor and unwanted aliens are mistreated because they are different and because they are poor.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

District 9 is often considered an allegory for the struggles that South Africa experienced under apartheid.

Much like the Jim Crow laws of the American South, apartheid laws upheld segregation and discriminatory practices between black South Africans and white South Africans. These laws remained in place until the 1990s, much longer than the legal discrimination crisis in the U.S.

The film demonstrates how fear and prejudice allow one group to isolate, denigrate, and discriminate against another group whom they do not understand. The alien prawns are stand-ins for a racial other, and the white characters’ treatment of them represents the individual acts of prejudice that contribute to institutionalized racism.

The film suggests that this racism is wrong and that, if someone were forced to understand what the “other” goes through, then he or she would understand why their racist attitudes are wrong.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One prominent theme in the movie District 9 is the dichotomy between alienation and empathy, and how that dichotomy plays out in human morality.

The movie is narrated in documentary style, interspersing interview snippets between live-action scenes. Wikus, a police officer who patrols the alien district, initially views the aliens as totally other. He sees no similarity between himself and the "prawns," and this mindset allows him to mistreat the aliens. In the first few scenes of the movie, he attacks one prawn, kidnaps the offspring of another, and spits in the face of a third.

When Wikus becomes infected with the virus that slowly turns him into a prawn, he begins to empathize with the aliens. He no longer views them as totally other. This shift is most dramatically demonstrated when he risks his own life to help one prawn escape the South African authorities. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team