Sharlto Copley, in 'District 9'

Dir. Neill Blomkamp
(2009, R, 112 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

The aliens are coming! They will kill us all! Plunder our resources! Invade our bodies! Eat our babies! Make merry sport of our women!

Or … maybe not. When aliens come to Earth in District 9, in a derelict spaceship that hovers inertly over Johannesburg, South Africa, they appear helpless and malnourished. When we bust down the doors of their ship, they don’t fight back, perhaps because they can’t. They have weapons but don’t use them. But mankind, in its reactionary fervor, responds to them with sneering mistrust. Who are they? What do they want? Why have they come here? We project our motives onto them and decide that they are hostile creatures who mean to overthrow us, so we do it to them first. They come in peace. Us … not so much.

I wrote in a recent entry about the BBC miniseries Torchwood: Children of Earth that the movies are increasingly inhospitable to idea-driven science fiction. Here is an exception. Co-written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, a former visual effects artist from South Africa, and produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, District 9 was produced for a relative pittance of $30 million and in its opening weekend earned $37 million. Given the bloated budgets of most summer CGI extravaganzas, the visual verve and technical elegance of this effort make one wonder where Hollywood’s money is going and why.

Sharlto Copley stars as Wikus Van Der Merwe, a mid-level bureaucrat for MNU (Multinational United), a private company placed in charge of the extraterrestrials, derisively nicknamed “prawns.” MNU isn’t a humanitarian group or relief organization. They’re weapons developers. Their solution is to isolate the aliens in District 9, a makeshift slum in the middle of Johannesburg, while they futz around with their technology.

The aliens are soon to be moved to District 10, far beyond city limits, and from what we’re told it makes District 9 look like the Hamptons. Wikus married the boss’s daughter, so he is put in charge of the evictions. The story and setting are intended to evoke Apartheid. They also recall the deportation of Jews from the ghettos to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. The alien residents are tricked, blackmailed, or strong-armed into signing their illegal eviction notices. Noticing that one alien is cleverer than the others in reading the fine print, Wikus threatens to take his son. How they deal with a nest of unhatched young is depraved and disturbing. Wikus isn’t an evil man, per se. He is ignorant and unquestioning of authority. Just following orders.

I won’t reveal more of the plot. It covers much of the same ground as Children of Earth, examining human nature at a time of uncertainty and finding us all too willing to act out of fear when faced with the unknown. How startling to see the aliens brutalized so casually, by blacks and whites alike, showing us that all human beings are united in our mistrust of the Other and our capacity for cruelty against those we don’t understand.

The film is handicapped by the thin rendering of its villains. There is a wheelchair-bound Nigerian warlord (Eugene Khumbanyiwa) who controls the black market in District 9. There is Koobus Venter (David James), an MNU mercenary who enjoys killing. Finally, there is the father-in-law (Louis Minnaar), who is quick to sell out Wikus for the company’s bottom-line. They’re stock characters, evil without giving us a meaningful idea of evil. Nowhere is a scene like Children of Earth’s secret roundtable, which showed us with gradually building horror how reasoned individuals can talk themselves into atrocity.

The second half boils over into shoot-‘em-up action, most of it heartily satisfying in its high-tech geekery — those aliens sure know their robotics! — though I wish Blomkamp had stuck closer to his themes. There is a late scene that contains the heart of the film: A human, mutated by the alien DNA, is shown with one human eye and one prawn eye, collapsing the distance between Us and Them. If we could see ourselves in the eyes of others, would we treat them the same?