Editor's note: Longtime NAM New York correspondent Marcelo Ballvé offers up a thoughtful interpretation of District 9, now playing in a theater near you.  It's more than just a South African allegory, critiques Ballvé, but rather an exploration of difference, otherness, the military-industrial complex, and the modern ghetto that is its casualty.

More than just an allegory about apartheid, I see District 9, the South African alien movie, as a deep meditation on difference. Aside from the many explosions, spurts of alien blood and stereotyped Nigerian arms dealers, it’s surprisingly thought-provoking.

An exploration of difference is the unifying theme of alien movies, of course. How will humanity respond to the other? How will aliens reckon with humans? But District 9’s premise adds new spins to the genre. Unlike in Predator or Alien, District 9’s otherworldly visitors don’t lurk in dark corners of a spaceship or Asian jungles, and they don’t feast on humans. Unlike the martians in the darkly comic Mars Attacks! they don’t destroy earthly civilization for sport. Instead, the aliens in District 9 find themselves stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa—helpless and vulnerable. They possess advanced weapons, but weakened and disoriented by their odyssey, they’re eventually imprisoned in a giant refugee camp: District 9.

The alien shack settlement, population over 1 million, is a stand-in for Soweto, the most notorious of South Africa’s apartheid-era townships. But District 9 is also a metaphor for the Gaza Strip, the World War II-era Warsaw ghetto, or Brazil’s favelas, which house millions of urban castoffs. Closer to home, there’s the cobbled-together network of private prisons, jails and even tent cities utilized by U.S. authorities to house immigrant detainees prior to deportation. Or the relocation camps in which Japanese-Americans were shamefully placed during World War II.

The aliens’ massive spaceship hovers in place over Johannesburg like a black cloud. It reminds the aliens of their homelessness, and the South Africans of the moral and economic burden they’ve taken on. The South Africans, blacks and whites, apparently forgetting the lessons of apartheid, complain about the cost of keeping up District 9, and refer to the aliens, derogatorily, as “prawns.” South Africa’s government hires a private contractor and arms manufacturer, MNU, to assume responsibility for the alien corral. Public anger mounts, and MNU hatches a plan to relocate District 9 to a place outside the city, where the aliens might be less of a nuisance. The movie’s action focuses on the unexpected results of the eviction campaign, led by the protagonist, an MNU stooge.

This storyline resonates with many contemporary narratives: the U.S. government’s use of mercenaries in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the privatization of U.S. prisons, etc. Some critics derided the movie as clumsy or even racist, but with the exception of the aforementioned Nigerians, I think much of it presents a nuanced view of difference and its many flash-points. Ultimately, District 9’s message is positive, and—perhaps paradoxically given all the inter-species violence—reminded me of the more amiable alien encounters of the 1970s and 1980s (Enemy Mine, Close Encounters of the Third Kind). It’s about aliens as catalysts for enlarging our most human capacities: understanding, sympathy, and imagination.