It has not been a great summer for films, and this is the first one I have been too in a long time. I probably have spoilers in here. I’ll try to keep them at a minimum but read no further if you want the surprise intact.
The film takes place in contemporary times …. and we are informed that 28 years earlier, a large alien spacecraft descended and continues to hover over Johannesburg, South Africa. After weeks of nothing, a human team cuts into the ship and discovers thousands of alien arthropods in a malnourished condition. The aliens are disembarked and brought into a makeshift refugee camp. To say the least, the aliens quickly started acting like malnourished, impoverished, refugees, and quickly wore out their welcome. Their refugee camp had become a slum, and the were confined there. That slum is called District 9. [I wonder why?]
The South African government turned over the running of District 9 to a private organization called MNU. MNU takes care of the aliens, provides security, etc. They are also a large weapons manufacturer. The aliens do have advanced weapons, but humans cannot operate them because they require alien DNA to operate.
The film opens with the MNU preparing to give the aliens 24 hours notice that they are about to be evicted and moved to District 10, a new camp about 200 km from Johannesburg, so that the good human citizens can feel safe. We are introduced to a rather enthusiastic but mousy chap in charge of the eviction (which, as his MNU executive father-in-law explains, has nothing to do with nepotism). The aliens are resentful, and with a few killed, and the rest bullied, they are submitting.
However, in the messiness of the eviction notification, our protagonist is exposed to an alien liquid, which begins mutating him into one of them. Not such a big deal, until MNU realizes that since he now has alien DNA in his body, he can operate the advanced weaponry they so desperately want. Thus sets off conflict of the rest of the film.
People of my generation of some familiarity with the horrors of South Africa’s former apartheid government, and anyone from my generation or older pretty much figures out that this film greatly parallels some of those horrors (dehumanization, second class citizenry, forced living in slums, forced relocation … for openers). In that sense, it is a straight forward allegory for the era of apartheid.
However, I could not help but think a little about the fact that many of the workers and soldiers involved with MNU were Black South Africans, and it made me wonder if there was also a message being sent about how quickly one can go from being “oppressed” to being part of the “oppression”. How quickly did the puritans and others escaping Europe become oppressors of Native Americans? Depending on your view point, how long did it take for Arabs under British domination to target Jews/how long did it take for Jews escaping Europe to target Arabs? How long did it take for an oppressed German people in the wake of WWI to become supportive of oppression? There are countless historic examples, and I wonder if that wasn’t something of the message. Even the film’s protagonist goes from respected office worker working for the MNU to being hunted among the decrepit aliens. Maybe there is something of the opposite message to: The oppressor can just as quickly become the oppressed … a point perhaps driven home as one option at the end of the film.
The film does not really have a happy ending. It does offer some possibilities for the future, which I suppose a good allegory will do.
This is not a film for the youngins. There are parts of the human-alien transformation that must have been inspired by the make up work in David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly. While it is not what I would characterize as an action film, there is some fighting that takes place, and its not always pretty. I wouldn’t call it a perfect film, but it is a breath of fresh air to see a good sci fi film about something that is told from a non-American perspective.