Science fiction – the most resonant kind of science fiction – often has more on its mind than spaceships, rayguns and little green men from other planets.
It’s often the case that a science fiction story (or a horror movie or a fantasy epic) will act as an allegory for something closer to reality, such as the way we treat the world around us or the way we treat one another.
Now, this isn’t always done subtly. Sometimes it can be downright heavy-handed.
But approaching an issue from a different angle can get people thinking about it in a different way. And that can’t be a bad thing, right?
District 9, the debut feature from South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, doesn’t tiptoe around its main analogy – having extra-terrestrials segregated, marginalised and exploited by humans is a fairly literal metaphor for racism generally and apartheid specifically.
But it works. It works like gangbusters, actually.
Cleverly using a documentary-style format to its advantage, the movie opens by recounting humankind’s first contact with an alien race when a massive spaceship appeared over the South African city of Johannesburg three decades ago.
The visitors weren’t some master race or invading force but rather a pack of malnourished refugees who soon became known as ‘prawns’.
Powerful private corporation MNU was given the task of looking after the aliens, and a holding area called District 9 was set up to house them. Before too long, it became a violent, crime-ridden slum.
As the story begins, MNU is preparing to forcibly evict the residents of District 9 and relocate them to a new camp.
Bureaucrat Wikus Van de Merwe (a terrific performance by Sharlto Copley) is assigned to oversee the operation but things go unexpectedly haywire when he’s sprayed with a strange alien substance and starts undergoing bizarre physical changes.
Now Wikus is the target of both the ruthless MNU power-brokers and the equally ruthless Nigerian gangsters who run the District 9 black market, and his only allies are the ‘prawns’ he once held in contempt.
As you see, the analogy is fairly clear. But District 9 does a marvellous job of conveying its ideas within the framework of an intense, hard-driving action movie with futuristic trappings.
With Wikus hunted by people out to exploit his condition for their own benefit, Blomkamp shifts gears and makes the movie a gripping, propulsive man-on-the-run thriller.
And when our beleaguered hero finally makes a stand against his adversaries, with a little help from some high-tech alien weaponry, it becomes a stunning spectacle of well-earned payback.
Brainy and brawny in equal measure, District 9 is a tremendous debut for Blomkamp and one of the most compelling genre pictures of the year.
Check out Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp’s original short that inspired District 9: