This is the smartest alien movie in quite a while. But then movies about creatures from other planets are never about the aliens; they’re about the humans, and about what being human really means.
It has cool and creepy giant insect-looking aliens and there are very cool sci-fi weapons and shoot-outs and chases and space ships and a super-cool giant insect-robot thing, and it is very exciting and scary and sometimes extremely gross (but in a cool, sci-fi way). But, like all great science fiction, it is in aid of speculative allegory. The interactions between humans and aliens all the more powerful for being understated, taken for granted, and filmed in an intimate, low-key fashion that makes it feel like a documentary. Instead of running around and shrieking, this story posits an even more believable human reaction to an alien invasion — a bureaucratic one.
Humanity’s history sometimes seems to come down to the lines we draw, metaphorically and literally. Boundaries establish real estate ownership, communities, and countries, and battles over those boundaries have continued, in some cases, over millennia. We draw lines to distinguish ourselves from others and we draw lines to separate others from ourselves. This movie is not about an invasion from outer space. It is about life twenty years after an invasion. At first, the huge spaceship just hovered over Johannesburg. There was no attack, no communication of any kind. Finally, the South Africans went up to the ship and broke in to find the creatures badly malnourished and ill.
Two decades later, as this movie begins, the humans and aliens exist in uneasy proximity, assigned to “District 9,” fatuously assigned generic human names like “Christopher Johnson” and provided the flimsiest of “rights.” In the name of “humanitarianism,” they are living in the title area, little more than a junkyard. The government has outsourced the supervision responsibility to a contractor. The creatures are exploited by crooks, and called by derogatory epithets like “prawns” (the South African term for shrimp), based on their physical resemblance.
The alien population has grown and so the entire community is about to be “relocated” (evicted) to a new facility, a slum even more remote and meager than the current one, with tents instead of corrugated huts. Wikus Van De Merwe (brilliant newcomer Sharlto Copley) is selected by his boss, who is also his father-in-law, to oversee the “relocation.” This involves, for some absurd reason, going hut to hut with clipboards eliciting some form of “consent.” Copley, much of whose dialog is reportedly improvised, is terrific as the well-meaning but hopelessly overmatched bureaucrat, who has no idea of how offensive he is or how much he is missing as he talks to the company’s camera recording what he thinks will be his triumphant moment. When he unexpectedly inhales an alien substance, he is at first more worried about looking like he knows what he is doing on film than about any possible harm. But soon he is feeling sick. And then things really get out of, uh, hand.
This is where Copley really takes off as Wilkus has to draw on depths of courage, skepticism, analytic ability, and trust he never anticipated. He goes through external and internal changes raising questions about who and what is truly human and he shifts loyalties more than once. The movie shifts, too, combining the documentary footage with news accounts and other perspectives to show us what Wilkus is seeing but to get a glimpse of what lies ahead of him — or is chasing him.
Its setting in Johannesburg immediately suggests the metaphor of apartheid (and some critics have objected to it as a superficial or slanted portrayal — see links below). The film is more clever and ambitious than that. Just as the classic original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is claimed by both the right and the left as representing their side, this is a movie that is designed to be discussed and argued over. It is those conversations about Its meaning in light of the way that struggles with the notion of “the other” can inspire both the best and the worst of what it means to be human.
Parents should know that this film has constant very strong and graphic sci-fi violence, guns and other weapons, very disturbing and gross images, guns, hand-to-hand fighting, sexual references including prostitution and inter-species sex, and constant strong language.
Family discussion: What parallels is the film trying to draw to historic treatment of groups of humans considered undesirable? How should the South Africans have responded to the aliens? If you like the film — or if you don’t — you should read the reviews of Armond White and DC Movie Girl, whose strong objections to the film make compelling reading.
If you like this, try: “Independence Day” and “Blade Runner”