Human history is a story of minorities versus oppressors: us against them, one family quarreling with the neighbors next door, one tribe pitted against another. District 9, the first film from South African commercial director Neill Blomkamp, takes this familiar story and extrapolates and exaggerates it into a simple science fiction question. If humanity can't manage peace and equality amongst its own, how would humans fare when faced with the truly foreign? Forget man's inhumanity to man: Blomkamp's debut, part energetic sci-fi romp, part apartheid parable, is a deft satire of man's inhumanity to alien.
District 9's title refers to the name of a shanty town located just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. Caged inside are nearly 2 million aliens—yes, the kind from outer space—whose ship mysteriously stalled out over the city two decades before. Needless to say, the aliens, who've been derisively dubbed "prawns" by the locals, don't mesh well culturally. They're dirty, fly-attracting garbage foragers who have a tough time with private property and treat cat food as an addictive delicacy. Despised, and often abused, by the city's human residents, the story starts when the contemptuous local authorities begin implementing a plan to forcibly relocate the alien population to an even grimier shack-town 200 kilometers away.
Blomkamp's film, which he co-scripted with Terri Tatchell, is a story of clashing cultures, and it poses questions similar to those raised by Orson Scott Card in the later books of his Ender series: Could an alien mind ever be truly knowable? Is peaceful interspecies coexistence even possible? Card treated these questions philosophically, as problems of culture and empathy. Blomkamp seems more interested in needling the human tendency toward brutal class segregation.
That manifests as a frequent eye toward bureuacracy and cruelty, which, often enough, turn out to be the same thing. Prawns, herded into walled-off slums, are beaten, lied to, and pushed around by heavily armed authorities. Their spawning grounds are deemed illegal, then set alight, while human captors chuckle over the "popcorn sound" the eggs make as they burst into flames. Those who cause problems quickly find themselves faced with a slew of regulations designed to give authorities maximum leeway. And when the aliens resist, or protest, they're casually shot. Still, Blomkamp is no government hater. The film targets the barbarism of private security forces hired to police District 9 as much as it does the local civil authorities.
Granted, the movie's not perfect. There's probably a dose or two of social-commentary too many, and the South African setting makes the film's political parallels too explicit. Blomkamp clearly takes it all very seriously and personally, and at times his outrage veers toward the melodramatic and obvious: Apartheid was a great evil, and so is the continued toll it takes on South African underclass. But no one seriously disputes this, and the film's occasionally weighty tone suggests that the director may be over-impressed with his own boldness.
Still, at the tail end of a cinematic summer of dumb, it's hard to criticize a sci-fi shoot-'em-up for slightly overestimating its own socio-political intelligence. And on the guns-a-blazin' front, the director's action-savvy is unmatched so far this year. The mechanized, no-holds-barred finale is the summer's best action setpiece—all the more impressive considering the film was made for about $30 million, less than a sixth of what Michael Bay reportedly spent on his joyless, insipid Transformers sequel.
Indeed, it's almost certain that the comparatively small budget was what allowed Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson to buck studio pressure and produce a fantastically gory, socially-engaged film with no stars set in a foreign country. In Hollywood the little guy is also often pitted against uncaring overlords—but as Blomkamp's clever, thrilling movie shows, sometimes outsiders can still eke out a victory.
Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.