The movie "District 9" opens with the ominous arrival of a huge spaceship.

(Soundbite of film, "District 9")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Not everyone is surprised that the ship didn't come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg.

SIEGEL: That spaceship carries creepy-looking aliens. But "District 9" is more than another alien-infested sci-fi flick. It uses its South African setting to touch on themes of apartheid, xenophobia and redemption. "District 9" has been a hit in the U.S. since it opened earlier this month, and over the weekend, it premiered in South Africa. We were curious how the film would be received there, and reporter Amy Costello went to find out.

AMY COSTELLO: Many of those emerging from theaters over the weekend responded to subtleties in "District 9" that may have been lost on many American audiences. Start with the film's title.

Mr. CHRISTO SCHUTTE(ph): In some ways, a little bit shocking, just thinking of District 6.

COSTELLO: That's Christo Schutte. He's referring to Cape Town's District 6, a neighborhood just a few miles from the cinema from which thousands of South Africans were forcibly removed during Apartheid. Skitter said watching the graphic, hyper-real removals of aliens from their homes by South African security forces in the fictional District 9 made him reflect on the real-life forced removals in Cape Town's District 6.

Mr. SCHUTTE: What happened, you know, some of that I never really understood because I never really experienced that. So, for me, that was a shock. You know, being a white South African, in some sense, to kind of see that.

COSTELLO: But for Jamila Hoveni(ph), a 26-year-old black South African, imagery of her nation's ugly past is a bad message to send out to the rest of the world.

Ms. JAMILA HOVENI: It was a representation of the old South Africa, you know, like apartheid state, the white people running the police state and the black people living in the slums. Just the whole setup of the movie, it reminded me of the whole apartheid era.

COSTELLO: In the film, security forces attempt to evict a million or so aliens from their homes. They call the aliens prawns, a derogatory term for the huge, scaly creatures. The prawns are violently forced into camps led by the film's leading character, a man who many here pointed out is an Afrikaner.

Ms. JANET DAFFY(ph): It's an Afrikaner nation. You can say, generally, it's Afrikaners who were the apartheid people.

COSTELLO: Janet Daffy is not Afrikaans herself, but she says the evolution of the Afrikaner lead from the aliens' foe to friend is a fitting tribute to post-apartheid South Africa. But some view the lead character more critically.

Mr. FORTUNE SIBANDA(ph): The lead character, I don't know if you wanted to cast him as a hero.

COSTELLO: That's Fortune Sibanda, a 33-year-old South African resident from Zimbabwe. He says the Afrikaner's decision to help the aliens was driven by self-preservation. He only acted to save the aliens when he begins to morph into an ugly alien himself, sprouting a huge, scaly arm.

Mr. SIBANDA: I'm not sure if it didn't grow that he would identify with them, he would sympathize with them. So for me, he's not a hero, he's just affected. He's driven by self-interest.

COSTELLO: The film's numerous graphic scenes of forced removals by heavily armed troops provided a visceral flashback of recent, real-life violence in South Africa. Last year, the nation was rocked by a series of deadly, xenophobic attacks on foreigners. Fortune Sibanda, himself a foreigner, says the film's apparent message of tolerance was undermined at every turn by a liberal use of what he sees as racial and ethnic stereotypes. Sibanda points to the masses of impoverished blacks and aliens living in shantytowns.

Mr. SIBANDA: I think what it does is to look at Africa from, I'm sorry to say, but from white eyes. You know what I'm saying? The fear that the African is a carnivore who wants to eat other people to assimilate their power. So in trying to do all that, I think the movie totally fails at the end of the day.

COSTELLO: Even so, "District 9" was selling out on Friday night and ticket sales remained strong over the weekend.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Costello in Cape Town, South Africa.

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