The spacecraft hangs above Johannesburg, like a relic from Star Wars that couldn’t find the parking dock. It manages to look both otherworldly and scruffy, battered, rusting. Unplugged cables dangle down like weeds. It isn’t going anywhere, it can’t go anywhere. No one in the movie is very interested in the spacecraft, it just hovers like persistent bad weather. It represents a forgotten advanced technology no one wants to connect with the ship’s former passengers: a population of two and a half million aliens, tall, agile skeletal types with all kinds of snakes and slugs as part of the constitution of their faces. I believe the intertextual source here is Pirates of the Caribbean, with a touch of the generic medical school anatomy class. The government has set up a camp for them, looking remarkably like an old township, but now wants to move them on, to shift them to some remoter spot where they will not annoy the locals and release so much repellent inter-species racism among the recent victims of racism’s other forms. This is a good liberal country where everyone has rights, including the right to pretend you’re recognising everyone’s rights when you’re not.
The film is District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp and written by the director and Terri Tatchell, and of course the South African resonances are everywhere, sparked by the setting if nothing else. But the question of the aliens, insofar as it has any allegorical reach at all, as distinct from a swift gesture towards the allegory it really doesn’t care about, connects far more closely to other recent and current histories, namely the history of any country faced with a large influx of foreigners it can’t absorb and can’t get rid of. The idea of another species representing the foreigners is the real turn of the screw.
The film is quick and light until it settles down into the long, hapless sequence of crashes, flashes, bangs that forms its climax. People, vehicles and buildings all explode away in the fashion that seems to be required of every current action film looking for even a little box-office response. The person in charge of the relocation of the aliens is Wikus van der Merwe, an officer of MNU (Multi-National United), the company that represents, no, replaces the government in this movie. All the Hummers and armoured vehicles are theirs, and so it seems is the army. Wikus is an amiable, nervous, nerdy, ambitious chap (wonderfully played by Sharlto Copley) and perfectly unable to understand the dimensions of what he is supposed to do. He is being interviewed on camera when we first see him, and obviously likes the media attention far more than he likes his job. He may think this is his job. There is a good deal of faux film-footage dotted about the movie, as if we were watching a documentary based on dozens of scraps of other people’s documentaries. Historians and sociologists, entirely reasonable people, speak directly to us from a later time, and pontificate in the nicest possible way. We meet Wikus’s family and gradually an eerie tone creeps into this material. Something has happened to him, they seem to be apologising for him or denying him. We have shifted without noticing from his old present tense on camera to the time after the horrors happened.
What horrors? Well, Wikus, trying to serve eviction notices on the aliens, has managed to spill on himself some drops of a potion one of the more scholarly of the aliens has concocted. Don’t ask what it is, or how he made it. All you need to know (or indeed can know) is that it has taken the patient scientist 20 years to collect it, and that he is planning to use it as fuel to get himself back to his spaceship, and perhaps to get the ship to move. The potion has another property too. It gradually turns any non-alien who touches it into an alien, and before we know it Wikus has grown an oozing arm ending in a vast crab claw, and become an outcast. Without ceasing to be the blinkered, self-admiring fellow he always was, he has decided he doesn’t want to be the mere material of his compatriots’ medical and military experiments. One of the finer touches in this (fortunately) none too serious plot is that the aliens have weapons of tremendous power, but they can be used only by creatures who have the aliens’ DNA. You can see how promising Wikus’s change of status might be.
The rest of the plot involves Wikus striking up a partnership with the alien scientist – he will turn Wikus’s arm back into a human limb if Wikus helps him to retrieve the space potion from the MNU lab – and his lovable little alien son, a weird intrusion of Disneytopia into a world where others seemed set to be forever others. I haven’t got to the strangest part of the movie, though, and I don’t know whether we enter another allegory here, drop allegory or even meaning altogether, or are invited to make connections of a quite different kind. Certainly the government of Nigeria is not happy, as this week’s newspapers inform us, and the film has been banned there.
It seems as if the agents of MNU, and the company itself, are the movie’s bad guys, and they are. Wikus’s father-in-law is an MNU high-up and gave Wikus his job as man in charge of the aliens’ relocation – a move that makes nepotism look bad, as A.O. Scott said in the New York Times. But these are just bad guys: the really evil guys are the Nigerians who have set up an empire of organised crime in the aliens’ camp: they sell cat food to the inhabitants as if it was caviar, deal in weapons and inter-species prostitution, and are devoted to cannibalism: nothing like a bit of succulent alien flesh. If Wikus is in trouble when he breaks out of the MNU hospital, this is mere practice for the hole he is in when he tries to buy guns from the Nigerians and the boss catches sight of Wikus’s alien limb and promises he will eat it one day.
What is all this about? Why does the movie need a level of scary evil beyond the routine badness of humanity? And why Nigerians? It might be an answer to say someone had to do the job if we knew what the job was. Perhaps the point is to take us away from the aliens, or take them out of the picture, and circle back to humanity and Africa. But then what is the actual suggestion? Maybe the question is too earnest.
Before it goes noisy and sentimental and extravagant, the film has some moments that are genuinely hard to forget, chilling and comic at once. When Wikus goes to the camp with his clipboard and papers (and military back-up), all sorts of absurdist encounters occur. He is trying to explain to these creatures who don’t even speak his language and won’t stand still while he talks to them that the government, or MNU, has the legal right to move them somewhere else. Once they have understood this principle, they can legally be moved. And if they don’t understand? They will be moved anyway. Wikus half-fails to grasp this situation – with part of his mind he must grasp it perfectly well – and goes on explaining to the aliens as if his getting across to them how right he is to be doing what he is doing were the most important thing in the world. We ourselves may be a little jittery at this stage of the movie, since if Wikus is plainly an idiot, the aliens are pretty disgusting and very strong. It could be that the allegory settles down again here into something interesting: even the mildest alien is frighteningly different and can’t be talked to as long as he or she is nothing but an alien.
In old science fiction movies the aliens were would-be conquerors and often thinly disguised Communists. And ET was just stranded. But this lot are refugees by the million, a sort of hyperbole for an everyday fear. Their failure to go back where they came from, at first because their ship is stranded, and then because it has left without them, reminds us that pretty soon where they come from will be where they are.