The meaning of District 9 can be interpreted as a scathing critique of colonialism. It exposes in a disturbingly palpable way some of the details of how colonialism operates, for example the use of complicated sets of onerous rules and procedures as leverage to gain compliance from a less administratively sophisticated but no less moral group.
In the movie, District 9 is a de facto Bantustan for a displaced alien population. The objective of the Afrikaner overseers is to instill obedience in the aliens through the use of familiar techniques such as asserting property rights to a people with no clear concept of property rights. In a set of circumstances characteristic of imperialism, the aliens find themselves in the position of a disadvantaged group due to the breakdown of their once advanced infrastructure, elegantly symbolized by their broken down mothership. Like most populations which are the target of imperialism, the aliens do possess very valuable resources but do not understand how to capture the value of those resources in the economic system of the imperials and thus do not possess the capacity to advocate for themselves on similar ground. The Afrikaners seek to extract the value of the aliens’ assets—their advanced technology--by gaining control of them. In order to do this they conduct monstrous experiments on aliens and affected humans alike.
Ultimately this is a narrative about how we treat one another. It seems to some extent to serve as a cautionary tale about the inevitably diffuse effects of cruelty and discrimination and to some extent to explicate the process by which different but interdependent groups of people harm one another and themselves by engaging one another through power relationships in the hopes of gaining dominance. In the story as in reality the objective of gaining group dominance is merely an organizing principle and a smokescreen as individuals seek to cleverly navigate through the group dynamics and use the situation to pursue their own self-interested desires, whether it be the pursuit of material gain in the case of the Afrikaner technocrats or the satisfaction of bloodlust in the case of the cruel Colonel of the Reactionary Force or the attempt to amass power by the leader of the Nigerians.
The conflicts that arise from the interactions of various groups are clouded by the reflexivity of peoples’ beliefs about social reality, where reflexivity implies holding a social belief and allowing the fact that the belief is held to bias actions so that the belief appears to be true to the observer holding the beliefs or actually does become true in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. This is best illustrated by the dangerous misunderstandings that occur between the different groups as the Afrikaners try to move the alien residents of District 9 to the concentration camp-like facilities in District 10. In fact these misunderstandings turn lethal and lead to the unnecessary deaths of aliens and Afrikaners and their agents alike. This is a clear example of the need for deep cultural understanding to be established when groups of people interact, and this is the responsibility of all groups involved. This is a necessary condition of accurately interpreting the meaning of the actions of other beings with higher-echelon cognitive abilities.
My main criticism of District 9 is that it is more violent than it needs to be in order to present the brutality inherent in a system of oppression. I don’t think the objective of the film is to advocate violence, in fact quite the contrary. The film would have been more potent if the characters solved more of the story’s problems without resorting to violence. But in spite of this glaring flaw the movie is still definitely worth seeing and deserves critical reflection and debate.