We like to imagine that the alien invasion, when it finally comes, will augur some cataclysm of joy or violence. If we're lucky, the visitors might dazzle us with a musical starship (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or pleasure us with cosmic sex energy (Cocoon). Or perhaps they'll descend from grim saucers to steal our water (Independence Day) or harvest our blood as crop fertilizer (War of the Worlds). We're so inclined to construe the invaders as either angels or demons that we rarely consider another, perhaps more disturbing scenario: What if we make contact with aliens, and they turn out to be a bunch of intergalactic schlubs?
The story of Neill Blomkamp's District 9 picks up several decades after an enormous clunker of a spaceship has more or less broken down in the skies over South Africa. Its passengers—hordes of dim, shiftless insectoids—have spent the intervening years living as impoverished refugees in a walled-off Johannesburg ghetto.
The film's nifty marketing campaign emphasized the alien-apartheid theme. A series of interviews posted online shows seemingly regular folks answering questions like "Do you believe aliens deserve equal rights?" Meanwhile, mock-Jim Crow signage has popped up in major cities—posters warning that bus stops are "for humans only." Yet the most effective advertisement for the movie is the six-minute short that Blomkamp created several years ago, which spawned the feature film.
Alive in Joburg is a clever composite of fake news footage and man-on-the-street interviews that manages to inspire a startling pathos for the downtrodden aliens. They appear huddled around garbage-can fires in hooded sweatshirts and wrapped with blankets. Their faces are blurred out, as if they were criminals on an episode of COPS, and we see only the ends of tentacles dangling from their chins. As they grunt plaintively in an alien language, subtitles appear across the bottom of the screen: "give us electricity … the place here we cannot adapt … give us running water that we may hydrate … we are stuck."
I'm amazed that Blomkamp can evoke so much feeling in just a few minutes of video. And I'm sad at how quickly he dispenses with it in the feature film. As an allegory of racial conflict and mass immigration, District 9 never really goes anywhere: The appealing premise fades into the background before 20 minutes have elapsed. We learn that the aliens will be forcibly relocated from their Johannesburg shantytown to a refugee camp 2,000 kilometers away and that the details are to be overseen by a sinister corporation called Multi-National United with a government contract.
The movie's hero, Wikus van der Merwe, is a nebbishy bureaucrat in MNU's Department of Alien Affairs who looks and acts like an Afrikaner version of Michael Scott. Wikus has been assigned to oversee the relocation of the "prawns" (as they're called by the locals), a task he embarks upon with great enthusiasm until fate conspires to reveal that the true monsters in this story are his corporate overlords. Under the pretense of helping the refugees, MNU scientists are instead working feverishly to commercialize a stockpile of alien weapons. They're also using live aliens for target practice, for no discernible reason. (The other, more serious holes in the story's logic are too numerous to list here.)
And so the film abandons any pretense of exploring the dynamics of social upheaval. Instead we're treated to yet another take on the evils of corporatism. Could there be a more egregious sci-fi cliché? In Moon we had Lunar Industries Ltd.; in Wall-E it was Buy N Large; Blade Runner featured the Tyrell Corp. And let's not forget the executives from the bio-weapons division of Weyland-Yutani, who cause all the carnage in Aliens.
(While we're on the topic: How lame is it that the megacorporation from District 9 is called "Multi-National United"? If you can think of a more obvious, witless name from the annals of anti-corporate science-fiction, e-mail me.)
It's a little odd, if you think about it, that District 9—and the whole sci-fi genre—should be so hung up on this one issue. Especially since creatures that arrive from another planet so clearly stand in for humans who arrive from another country: space aliens, illegal aliens. On the io9 blog, Charlie Jane Anders has argued that the archetypes of science-fiction are refugees; indeed, a long list of sci-fi novels explore the theme of immigration in great detail. Film directors, too, have in the past used stories of marooned aliens to examine race relations (e.g. Brother From Another Planet, Alien Nation) and assimilation (e.g. The Man Who Fell to Earth, Superman). Yet recent sci-fi cinema continues to dwell on the corporate menace.
Perhaps I'm asking too much of District 9. According to the LosAngeles Times, Blomkamp worried that by delving too deep into social commentary, "the film would become too serious and oppressive and that it 'wouldn't be entertaining on a popcorn level.' " Fair enough. We also learn that he "tacked the word 'SATIRE' in giant letters to his office wall as a kind of working manifesto."
I suppose it's his prerogative to depict a race of aliens trapped in a South African ghetto while at the same time striving to keep things lighthearted. But if that's the goal, I could have done without the obligatory anti-corporate message. Dude, let's just keep things on a popcorn level, OK?
Slate V: The critics on District 9 and other new releases