We call someone an "alien" to tell him he's different from us -- probably inferior -- and will never fit into our society, whatever his intentions and characteristics may be. We usually want him out of our sight, our hair, even our country. But in demonizing him, we dehumanize ourselves.
That's the point of the thinking man's action movie "District 9." (Yes, there's such a category, and this one's near the top of it.) And because the aliens come from across the universe instead of across the border, it's easier to despise them and more tragic when we learn what we've lost by treating them like dirt.
South African director Neill Blomkamp set and shot the film around his native Johannesburg, so parallels to apartheid leap to mind. Yet the script he wrote with Terri Tatchell applies to any culture that bluntly excludes another.
It's hard to blame the humans when the first sight of the visitors is so revolting. Their ship shows up in 1989; when government officials cut it open, they find emaciated, bipedal insects who croak in a guttural tongue full of clicking noises. (It sounds a little like Xhosa, which African tribespeople spoke in "The Gods Must Be Crazy.")
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The government pens them in District 9, surrounding them with a razor-wire fence and passing laws that discriminate against nonhumans. The criminal class, led by Nigerian gangsters, moves into the district with an eye to gathering the aliens' weapons, which are useless when operated by humans.
After 20 years, the government wants to move them to (concentration) camps 200 miles away. A weapons-making corporation that has the same idea as the Nigerians offers to handle the relocation and assigns a midlevel bureaucrat, Wikus (Sharlto Copley), to the job.
You can see some of what's coming: Wikus, who once hated the "prawns" (as the aliens are dismissively called), develops sympathy for them as he realizes their intelligence and the advanced levels of technology they achieved. His family and co-workers are disgusted, but he decides not to follow orders.
What you won't see coming is the reason he changes his mind -- and it's not pretty.
Violence flares fast and often once the forced relocation begins, and it leads to a battle that might have been an outtake from "Transformers" (if "Transformers" made sense).
Blomkamp aims at many a villain: vicious mercenaries (who look like shaven-headed Bruce Willis), heartlessly corrupt corporations, Pilate-like governments that wash their hands of responsibility, media who ignorantly or complicitly parrot official lies and absurdities.
But these points strike you afterward. His breakneck pacing hurls one tense sequence after another at us, most of them filmed with hand-held cameras for documentary-style effect. (The early scenes have a "Blair Witch" casualness. After Wikus settles down to helping the aliens, the movie also settles down a bit visually.)
Seeming plot holes turn out not to be holes, after all. I wondered why, if South Africans speak prawn, nobody knew how smart the extraterrestrials were. Why did the Nigerians not hire them as soldiers, letting them use their own weapons against human enemies?
But that's Blomkamp's point: Once you write someone off, you're not going to listen to him. You won't trust him. You don't have to learn from him or find common ground. He's considered to be as disposable as meat, which is how many characters of both species get treated in "District 9."
That's the heart of the tragedy.