For decades—at least since Orson Welles scared the daylights out of radio listeners with War of the Worldsback in 1938—the public has embraced the terrifying prospect of alien invasion. But what if, notwithstanding the occasional humanist fable like E.T., all those movies and television programmes have been inculcating a potentially toxic form of interplanetary prejudice?

District 9, a smart, swift new film from the South African director Neill Blomkamp, raises such a possibility in part by inverting an axiomatic question of the UFO genre. In place of the usual mystery—what are they going to do to us?—this movie poses a different kind of hypothetical puzzle. What would we do to them? The answer, derived from intimate knowledge of how we have treated one another for centuries, is not pretty.

Less than stellar: Humans come off very poorly in District 9.

The South African setting hones the allegory of District 9 to a sharp topical point. That country’s history of apartheid and its continuing social problems are never mentioned, but they hardly need to be. And the film’s implications extend far beyond the boundaries of a particular nation, which is taken as more or less representative of the planet as a whole.

No group, from the mostly white soldiers and bureaucrats who corral and abuse the prawns to the Nigerian gangsters who prey upon the aliens and exploit their addiction to cat food, is innocent. But casual bigotry turns out to be the least of the problems facing the exiles. As it progresses, District 9 uncovers a horrific programme of medical experimentation yoked to a near-genocidal agenda of corporate greed. A company called MNU (it stands, none too subtly, for Multi-National United) has taken over the administration of the prawn population, which means resettling the aliens in a remote enclosure reminiscent of the Bantustans of the apartheid era.

At its core the film tells the story—hardly an unfamiliar one in the literature of modern South Africa—of how a member of the socially dominant group becomes aware of the injustice that keeps him in his place and the others, his designated inferiors, in theirs. The cost he pays for this knowledge is severe, as it must be, given the dreadful contours of the system. But if the film’s view of the world is bleak, it is not quite nihilistic. It suggests that sometimes the only way to become fully human is to be completely alienated.

©2009/The New York Times

District 9 released on Friday.

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