A group of soldiers swaggers through a slum backing up callous bureaucrats as they serve eviction orders on the malnourished residents. Anyone who objects faces abuse. Anyone who resists is shot down.
This may sound like Gaza or Iraq, but these slum-dwellers are seven feet high with tentacles for faces.
These scenes are from the striking new science fiction film District 9.
It opens with a satirical “documentary”, which explains how 20 years ago a huge spaceship came to a halt over Johannesburg in South Africa.
Masses of half-starved aliens were found on board and ferried down to a refugee camp. This developed into the militarised township District 9, where they now rot.
The current citizens of the city don’t like the alien “problem” being so visible and turn to the oppressive MNU corporation – an organisation that seems to be a uncomfortable combination between the UN and war profiteer Halliburton.
The plot follows an attempt to move the aliens to a concentration camp hundreds of kilometres outside the city.
Bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of the eviction. For him, everything changes when he is exposed to alien technology that causes stomach churning changes in his body and forces him to ally with aliens he had previously dismissed.
The memory of apartheid hangs over the film, but the dominant comparison is with the treatment of migrant workers.
When the camera first noses into the squalid interior of the spaceship, the aliens scurrying for cover resemble those caught in the spotlight of a border patrol.
Despite their obviously superior technology, the aliens are regarded as stupid – someone comments that these are just “worker bees”.
Like a highly qualified asylum seeker who ends up working as a hotel cleaner, it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to ask what they can do. No one takes any real notice of them apart from MNU and the local gangsters, who are both trying to get their powerful weapons to work.
Special effects integrate the computer generated aliens with live action so that the effect is like news footage. The film becomes an action movie towards the end, but unusually this doesn’t mean that the initial look and themes are abandoned.
It works as a very violent thriller, but remains honest to its satirical intentions and it isn’t giving much away to say that there are no great revelations at the end.
The film has something of the nightmare quality of Philip K Dick’s books. Perhaps unsurprisingly when Hollywood has filmed his works, Dick’s nerdish heroes have been replaced by “real men” such as Harrison Ford (Blade Runner), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Total Recall) and Tom Cruise (Minority Report).
The flawed Wikus is much more convincing.
District 9 echoes the history of science fiction films – from the “body horror” transformation of the Quatermass Xperiment or The Fly to the iconic giant spaceships of Close Encounters or Independence Day – often undermining them.
This monolithic spaceship arrived 20 years ago. South Africa’s apartheid government would still have been in power. The modern country we see in the film is not the really existing ANC-dominated country.
Race is never explicitly mentioned, though this version of South Africa is totally dominated by whites.
District 9 is darkly humorous, and grossly violent in a way that can become unsettling.
The only really problematic area is the treatment of the Nigerian gangsters. Their cannibalistic tendencies can be seen as a comment on the damage that racism does, but it is also uncomfortably close to simple stereotyping.
Science fiction has always been concerned with otherness. Where racism is discussed in science fiction films it has often been in a dogmatic way.
District 9 manages to avoid most of those pitfalls. And the film steadfastly avoids stating whether either humans or aliens are inherently superior.