We're lucky to have two thought-provoking, well-written science fiction movies in as many months: Moon and District 9 feel like twin beacons in a void full of action movies. But what's really surprising is how much they have in common.
Oh, and there are spoilers for both movies here.
On the surface, the two films feel totally different: Moon sports a micro-budget of $5 million, and the only actor who's featured on screen for any length of time is Sam Rockwell, as the film's lonesome miner. D9 has a comparatively rich $30 million budget, with tons of CG animation, and a fairly sprawling cast. But when you drill down, both films share similar themes and story elements:
1) The Little Guy.
Both movies feature a similar sort of protagonist — not your typical action-movie hero, but a guy who's just sort of a working stiff. And in both cases, the guy gets promoted to an important gig, where he's on the front lines and most likely to get rained with crap. Sam Bell, of course, gets the super-vital, but lonesome, job of harvesting Helium-3 on the Moon's surface, with only a robot for company. Wikus van der Merwe, meanwhile, gets to be the field leader on the vital mission of serving eviction notices to the alien residents of the District 9 shantytown, so they can be moved to concentration camps. Wikus seems more out of his depth than Sam, but they're both just regular guys struggling with a huge burden.
2) The Health Crisis.
And both Sam and Wikus get ill as a result of their jobs. In the case of Sam, he just gets sort of worn out, for reasons that are never fully explained. Is he sick because his cloned body only has a limited lifespan? Or is it the effects of dealing with Helium-3? Either way, he starts getting shaky, having hallucinations and forgetting stuff. And looking, generally, like a ghost of himself. Meanwhile, in the course of doing his job, Wikus gets sprayed with some kind of alien fluid that's both fuel and biotech, and he starts vomiting up black bile. Then his arm transforms into a hideous bug arm with black tentacles coming out of it. Either way, work makes you sick.
3) The Evil Corporation.
The good news is, Sam and Wikus have good health benefits. Right? Right? Actually, no. Sam's employer, Lunar Industries, has a planned obsolescence scheme for him — when one clone of Sam Bell gets worn out, they just defrost another one, with all of Sam's original memories in it. The old Sam gets incinerated, in the guise of being sent back home. As for Wikus, well... Multi National United isn't really interested in curing him. They're much more concerned with harvesting all the biotech possibilities from his hybrid body, which brings us to...
4) The Twisted Biotech.
What makes both Lunar Industries and MNU fully evil is that they're doing twisted biological experiments on sentient creatures. Playing god, etc. In the case of Lunar Industries, it's just cloning (that we know of, anyway). The Moonbase turns out to have rows and rows of identical Sam Bells in deep freeze, even down to the snarky T-shirt, in a hidden compartment. As for MNU, it has a whole evil laboratory full of alien specimens who are being experimented on — it's not just Wikus that they want to dissect, it's tons of the "Prawns" as well — the sight is so horrific that when Christopher Johnson, Wikus' "Prawn" friend, sees it, he's paralyzed with grief.
5) The Uneasy Partnership
The main ray of hope in both films comes from the idea that you can only win against the Man if you team up with your fellow oppressed beings, no matter how different. In Moon, Sam's not sure how much he can trust Gerty, the Kevin Spacey-voiced robot who's keeping watch over him (and helping to perpetuate the deception that there's only one Sam.) But in the end, Gerty exceeds his programming and gives Sam access to sensitive data — even letting Sam shut him down and erase part of his memory banks, so Sam can get away. (Or at least one Sam can.) As for Wikus, he's forced to team up with the abused alien named Christopher Johnson so he can get his regular arm back — although Wikus doesn't really become a real friend to Christopher until the very end of the movie. And not coincidentally, that's when Wikus finally shows us a glimmer of hope that things can change.
6) The Daring Escape
And both movies end with one of our heroes racing away, on a shuttle, so they can reveal what's been going on — but in neither case does it feel like a clean getaway. Moon leaves us hoping that after the "second" Sam Bell blows the whistle on Lunar Industries' misdeeds, there'll be some changes made, but we still have to watch the "original" Sam Bell die in his crashed rover. Meanwhile, District 9 tricks us into thinking, for a moment, that Wikus is really going to escape from his situation — but of course, there's really nowhere for a half-human, half-Prawn to go. It's only Christopher Johnson who's able to flee in the command module, and we don't know how damaged it (and he) is at that point. Does he make it home to tell his people about what's happened on Earth? We don't know.
So to summarize: You're a tool of the man, your work will make you sick and your employer will try to screw you over, and in fact your employer will take the earliest opportunity to experiment on you in sick, sadistic ways. Your only hope is to team up with other people who are stuck in the shit with you, no matter how different from you they are, and maybe then you can make an ambiguously dirty getaway.
I'm not saying these similarities in any way diminish the awesomeness of either movie — if anything, it's the other way around. In addition to being incredible films in their own right, both D9 and Moon seem to be saying something profound about work and how dehumanizing and destructive it can be. At a moment when large corporations are more powerful than they've ever been, and governments appear all but powerless to affect the economy, both films are about the feeling of being crushed by corporate power — and they offer a hope that by sticking together, we can break free.