Apartheid for Aliens

In the new sci-fi feature “District 9,” a spaceship lands on Johannesburg. And the only thing scarier than the invaders are the humans.

It’s been a good year for science fiction at the movies. In one sense, it always is, of course.Somewhere between the deafening fusillade of the latest Terminator movie and tumbling havoc of the latest Transformers, beleaguered audience members may dimly remember a kind of movie that wasn’t adapted from a game or turned into toy, but the moment quickly passes.

They may even remember another, more distant time when science fiction didn’t mean killer cyborgs and laser guns. It meant Jules Verne and H. G. Wells pressing the fast-forward button on the industrial revolution to see what happened next; it meant Isaac Asimov devising an ethics system for robots, and Arthur C. Clarke predicting the existence of geostationary communications satellites. It meant the night sweats of Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard and William Burroughs, and—at the movies— 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, the first Alien movie, Blade Runner.

District 9 is an anti-apartheid movie for little green men. They are a mangy set of curs, too—hunched insectoids who scavenge for food and urinate on street corners.

That sci-fi—the more thoughtful, contemplative strain—is having a good year. First we got Moon, Duncan Jones’s haunting film about a space janitor slowly unraveling on the dark side of the moon. Now we have District 9, another first feature, from South African director Neill Blomkamp, under the helm of producer Peter Jackson, who after funding for Blomkamp’s debut feature fell apart, dug into his own pockets and encouraged the 30-year-old director to make something closer to home.

The opening shots of District 9 show Blomkamp’s native Johannesburg languishing beneath the shadow of a giant spaceship: 20 years ago, it rolled up, ran out of gas and has been parked there ever since. Its crew, meanwhile, live just below it, in a quarantined slum, surrounded by barbed wire, known as District 9. The military patrol the perimeter; human rights lawyers protest the legality of their incarceration; the local townsfolk, meanwhile, just want the “prawns’—as they are derisively called—gone. “If they were from another country you’d understand,” explains one weary Afrikaaner, to a documentary crew. “But they’re not even from our planet.”

As ideas go this is a beauty. It took certain type of surly ingenuity to imagine that when aliens finally made contact with us,they might do so not in a blaze of music and lights, or rocket fire and laser-guns, inspiring neither peace nor war, but instead would take up residence in the same sump of mistrust and resentment with which immigrants have been treated since time immemorial.

District 9 is an anti-apartheid movie for little green men. They are a mangy set of curs, too—hunched insectoids who scavenge for food and urinate on street corners—although that’s nothing compared to the humans in the movie, who line up to represent the forces of bigotry and intolerance, led from the front by a tightly-wound bureaucrat with a clipboard, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) whose job it is to move the aliens from District 9 to a more tightly-policed camp, just outside the city. Any resemblance to the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto or the creation of the Soweto townships is, of course, purely coincidental.

The movie’s satirical sights are no less powerful for being so glancing. There’s real bite to the sequence in which Der Merwe goes from shack to shack, all officious smiles and nervy threats, attempting to get the aliens’ clawprint on the relevant eviction notices. Audiences may be surprised, however, to find this nervous petty official turning into the movie’s hero. After receiving a spray of alien gunk to the face, der Merwe turns home to find black goo leaking from his nose, passes out and wakes up in the hospital with a giant alien claw sprouting from his arm.

I’m sorry, but there’s no kind way of breaking that to you. Nor is there any acting class in the world that can prep you for it; as Copley gives us his best guess as to how he might feel to wake up one day with a giant alien claw sprouting from his arm (hoisted eyebrows, dropped jaw, a blizzard of “fok”s), I felt a wave of giggles spread throughout the cinema, and some of the film’s promise begin slowly to evaporate.

Der Merwe is soon on the run, hunted by his own government, which wants to harvest his organs for their weapons program, and by a gang of violent warlords who want to eat his alien claw for supper—quite possibly for its aphrodisiac qualities. How did a movie that started out with such a Swiftian glint in its eye end up so transfixed by the yucky b-movie transmogrifications of The Fly and Mant? Shouldn’t our hero be undergoing a change of heart, rather than species?

Der Merwe is finally taken in by one of the aliens he tried to evict, but if you’re expecting the flowering of interstellar friendship and galactic understanding, forget it: While the alien and his son plan their return to the heavens, Der Merwe wants only to stop black tailfinsspouting through his spine. Did Jeff Goldblum warm to the plight of fruit flies just because he was turning into one of them? The movie doubles down on physical disgust at the very point when it should be peeling back our prejudices toward the aliens; by the end of it, I felt no more warmly towards these critters than when it began.

You could argue, of course, that this is all part of Blomkamp’s grueling plan. You don’t get to take a blow torch to the legacy of Steven Spielberg and then go all touchy feely at the final hurdle. Certainly, when you look at the science-fiction landmarks of the last few decadesa certain chilliness goes with the territory. I defy anyone to watch 2001, say, or Alien, and say with any great certainty that those films were made by an entirely human intelligence. Both Kubrick and Scott seemed to side with the computers at their films’ centre, idly gazing on while the puny humans scramble for their lives.

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But Alien also had Ripley, exhibiting grace under pressure to emerge as the film’s battle-weary heroine. Copley is no Sigourney Weaver, and his performance—all bug-eyed panic and Afrikaans-inflected “foks”—provides the movie with the jitteriest of centers. These are pretty Empyrean standards, to be sure, but then Blomkamp’s movie aims high—it’s sci-fi that packs a powerful punch. A pity about the follow-through.

Tom Shone was film critic of the London Sunday Times from 1994-1999.He is the author of two books, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Free Press) and In The Rooms (Hutchinson), his first novel, to be published on July 7th 2009. He lives in New York.