Just like the laws of geometry become clearest in extreme parallelograms, the laws of humanity emerge in science fiction. Aliens tell humans what it means to be human.
First-time South African movie director Neill Blomkamp takes advantage of this trope in “District 9,” an ingenious twist on the “aliens invade” movie. Blomkamp crafts an engaging story that is simple in its plot and entirely enjoyable on its surface, but also complicated in its suggestions about our world and our conflicts.
In the 1980s, an alien spacecraft stalls over Johannesburg, unexplained.
Eventually, the humans cut their way inside and discover thousands of crustacean-like aliens inside, dying of malnourishment. The aliens, referred to throughout the movie by the slur “prawns,” are placed in a holding camp for recuperation and monitoring, but the eventually the camp becomes a giant slum called District 9, where nearly 2 million aliens live in poverty and Nigerian criminals run a massive black market economy.
Cut to the present, where the private security and weapons firm Multi-National United is running District 9, and mid-level bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is picked to head up the effort to move the aliens to a large tent camp outside the city limits.
In the course of the evacuation effort, though, he is exposed to an alien fluid.
Then his body starts to change, and his allegiances get confused.
The aliens, being highly attuned to symbolism, chose Johannesburg — rather than Washington, D.C., or London or Beijing — to allow the movie to become an allegory for apartheid. Which means — get ready for it — the movie can also be seen — fairly or unfairly — as an allegory for all clashes between tribes — here it comes — between occupiers and occupied, including, yes, even the one between Israel and Palestine. (Sigh.)
More than a few critics of Israel — most notably former President Jimmy Carter — have compared the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians to apartheid. Is it wrong to assume aliens might see things the same way? Even though the movie takes place in South Africa, the score features windswept cries from the minarets of the Middle East, and when we are told that the 2.5 million aliens live together in the cramped District 9, are we not, at some level, being asked to think of the densely populated Gaza Strip?
Or, maybe, the allegory runs in the opposite direction.
Here we have a small group of aliens. They have arrived, leaderless, in South Africa for unknown reasons, and are immediately blamed for everything from train derailments to missing sneakers. They are simultaneously looked down upon as an inferior species and held in awe for their mystical abilities; a Nigerian warlord eats alien flesh in the hopes of ingesting some of their power. The aliens, though, have only one desire: to go home.
“How many moons does our planet have?” an alien child asks his father.
“Seven,” the father replies.
“This planet has only one,” the child says, longing for a homeland he’s never seen.
As social commentary, a science fiction movie like “District 9” gambles with a lose-lose proposition: resemble real life conflicts too closely and risk oversimplification and preachiness, or remain vague and risk stating only obvious criticisms about humanity.
“District 9” strikes a balance through its central idea: the oppressed people are not our fellow humans. They are aliens, seemingly here by accident and mostly uninterested in our planet. They want to go home. We want them to go home. But no one knows how to make it happen, no one agrees on what to do next, and no one speaks the same language.
All viewers come away both justified and challenged in their beliefs.
Blomkamp told The New York Times that as much as his movie referenced black suffering under apartheid, “he was also trying to comment on how the country’s impoverished peoples oppress one another.” That’s why, even with its inventive special effects and action sequences, the most enjoyable moments in “District 9” are smaller.
The movie revels in the grammar of social conflicts. A clipboard-wielding bureaucrat scolds aliens for not having proper permits. Military leaders chide pencil pushers for not having any backbone. Refugee aliens navigate and game the system. Third parties see opportunities for profit. And the general populace is frightened, unsure and exhausted.
Like the spaceship hovering over Johannesburg, “District 9” looks at our world from 30,000 feet, where the view is occasionally much clearer, and sometimes far more complex, than it is on the ground.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)