Friday, August 14, 2009

Aliens are repulsive, but we're worse

Brutish humans victimize alien beings from outer space. That sounds like a formula lifted from some long-forgotten sci-fi trash of the '50s, but director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is very much a product of the misanthropic present. The aliens may not be saints, but they're the closest we get to a rooting interest in Blomkamp's tipsy sci-fi adventure, nearly all of which takes place on a planet called Earth, more particularly in a South African slum where stranded aliens have been brutally segregated.

The reptilian-looking aliens in District 9 are stuck on Earth from the beginning of Blonkamp's dizzying ride through this filthy urban outpost. At the outset, we learn that that the alien spaceship has been hovering over Johannesburg like a giant pancake for the last 20 years.

The aliens, of course, couldn't have picked a worse spot to break down. South Africa's white Afrikaners -- the inventors of apartheid -- have had plenty of experience developing systems of extreme segregation, and by the time the plot kicks in, the aliens have been herded into a special district -- No. 9 to be precise. Confined to this awful shantytown, they live impoverished, degraded lives.

Enter Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a smiling but clueless bureaucrat, who has been chosen to lead a relocation project designed to move aliens away from the city. The good people of Johannesburg are sick of living near a crime-ridden slum. Their answer: Move the slum.

Blomkamp -- with a producing boost from Lord of the Rings guru Peter Jackson -- keeps things humming, and the movie's detailing can be amusingly strange or blatantly telling. The aliens -- called "prawns" by the residents of Johannesburg -- treat cat food like an illicit drug, buying it from Nigerian gangsters who also offer "inter-species sex" with human prostitutes. The aliens speak with clicking sounds that seem to have been borrowed from one of the Bantu languages. Reluctant residents on Earth, they'd like nothing more than to repair their ship and return home.

As the story -- told in the form of a mock documentary -- progresses, we develop more sympathy for the aliens than for any of Earth's native inhabitants. Of course, Blomkamp pretty much stacks the deck: A self-serving and evil corporation wants to discover the secret of alien weaponry, which is as mighty as most human weapons. A mid-picture plot twist drives Blomkamp's feature toward an ending that puts van der Merwe on the run, while paying homage to the kind of homeward-looking yearnings that made E.T. so poignant.

As sci-fi goes, District 9 proves several cuts above most recent fare, although it's grandest ambitions may be a trifle superfluous. Do we really need movies that serve as metaphors for apartheid and other extreme forms of prejudice? The real deals speak loudly for themselves. And in case apartheid weren't enough of an outrage, Blomkamp throws in a reference to the Holocaust with a lab that's busy conducting ''medical'' experiments on aliens.

Taken as a dizzying example of how to freshen B-movie conceits, District 9 has it all -- action, gore, blazing weaponry and CGI effects. Go. Root for the "prawns." But be forewarned: Blomkamp has gone Pogo on us: He has seen the enemy, and it's us.

What's more repulsive, the movie asks, a slithery alien with a face that might not feel at home in an aquarium or a corporation that will stop at nothing to obtain the biggest weapons? In a comic-book obsessed popular culture, that may be as profound a question as we're likely to get.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Not all comic books are oversimplified. Please Save My Earth, for example, is a psychologically complex Japanese story of aliens that ended up stuck in our solar system who have decidedly ambivalent feelings about their lot.