When viewing Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" through the standard summer action blockbuster lens, it performs and entertains as we would expect from a summer action film.
People and aliens are not just shot – they burst, splattering like greasy, offal-filled balloons onto the camera lens. Explosions, gunfire and implied interspecies sex abound. It should hold the No. 1 film spot in theaters for those reasons alone.
But there is something deeper, more sinister in this film. Hiding behind the visual veneer of grease and gunpowder in District 9 lurks a plot that reveals the true extent of our own human inhumanity, of the entirely plausible echoes of racism that we as a species are capable of.
Twenty years prior to the events of the film, the aliens – "prawns," as they are labeled by the humans living under the shadow of their derelict spacecraft – drifted to a stop above the skies of Johannesburg, South Africa.
For three years the aliens did not leave the ship. Humans from the M.N.U. corporation had to make their way up and cut their own way in, finding, not a stockpile of technology, but rather a race of creatures that could no longer operate the ship.
As a "humanitarian" measure, the aliens were "escorted" from the ship to a section of Johannesburg directly below, and were soon "protected" by a perimeter wall, effectively ghettoizing them.
The stark horror of the entire process is delivered not by scenes of aliens being marched into concentration camps – that is what mid-level M.N.U. bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) was promoted to do – but rather by means of documentary-style interviews with Johannesburg citizens.
The irony of the situation is clear to those with a consciousness of the tragedies of apartheid and racism in South Africa. The plausibility of the reactions – we can imagine without much effort people actually speaking out to segregate aliens – is what makes us shudder internally.
Substitute "black," "Asian," "Mexican," "illegal," "Jew," or any number of different labels for the word "prawn" in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue, echoing what we historically as a species are all too capable of doing.
The atrocities presented are many and varied. Alien eggs and larvae are killed, sometimes popped, described at one point like "popcorn" when one nest is destroyed. Genocide only begins to describe what we see on screen, the "action" we have come so completely to expect from summer films.
District 9 is nothing short of conradesque in his depiction of the corruption human beings are capable of. Some, like the Nigerian gangsters in the film, have taken to performing voodoo rituals, consuming the flesh of in an effort to gain their powers, including the ability to control their weaponry.
Blomkamp, however, deviates from Conrad in that he shows that the largely white – and thus, supposedly, civilized – M.N.U. corporation performing the District 9 eviction is just as depraved, using captured aliens in military experiments in an effort to harness alien DNA, the key to making the remaining alien weaponry work. The aim of M.N.U's civilized science is the same as the aim of the Nigerians' savage mysticism: to consume, and through that, control the aliens' power.
As for Wikus, he just becomes another cog in the M.N.U. machine. He is a part of the problem, only realizing how much of his humanity has escaped him after he is exposed to something that could replace his human DNA with alien genes – making him the most valuable being on the planet.
He then begins to see with new eyes. He begins to see the horror Blomkamp lays bare for us: the awful, plausible darkness within our own hearts.
Will those who go to summer blockbusters for the explosions see it?
Final Verdict: "District 9" is "Heart of Darkness" with aliens, a film intellectuals can drag their explosion-happy friends to without boring either party. Solid A