Science Fiction is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself—Frederic Jameson, critic
We call them “prawns”: bottom feeders, vermin: feared and hated aliens who descended unannounced—and unwanted—over Johannesburg twenty years ago. Their massive starship hangs poised over the crowded city, casting a daily reminder that we are not alone in the universe.
The ship came and hovered in the hazy skies over Johannesburg, in a pall of silence. Humanity waited for something to happen; nothing did. A United Nations team was finally dispatched to investigate and what they found was not an imposing conquering force of great superiority but a million starving refugees in a shipwreck. Multinational United’s (MNU) Department of Alien Affairs housed them in a compound while humanity decided what to do with them.
Jackson leaps into the story mid-stride, effectively skipping twenty years of feckless inter-alien relations to a nexus in the storyline, where we find the aliens incarcerated in a ghetto that resembles the South African townships: they are essentially not allowed out. The analogy between the marginalization of the aliens and the South African segregationist policy of apartheid is obvious and further parallels Nazi Germany, Palestine and other scenarios of irrational prejudice and cruelty. The aliens even speak in a language that includes clicking that reflects many native South African languages. So, begins Peter Jackson’s film District 9.
Jackson intersperses action scenes with “back-story narrative” provided through the device of expert interviews, ranging from sociologists to entomologists. Jackson filmed his opening scenes using hand-held video cameras and stop action in news reels and interview format to capture an authentic immediacy to this powerful social commentary of humanity’s first encounter with the “other”.
We first see the aliens as the humans see them: unattractive unruly and repulsive insect-like creatures, who are not terribly intelligent and are pathetically addicted to cat food—until we meet one. Chris Johnson (or so he’s been named by the humans, reminiscent of the white people’s renaming first nations peoples or the Europeans who came to America) is on a secret mission to get home; along with his son and others Chris has been secretly building a shuttle to get back to the mother ship for over 20 years by collecting a rare liquid to fuel their organic technology. We quickly realize that these creatures possess the intelligence and knowledge that reflects the technologically advanced spaceship hovering above the city and the alien weaponry that only they can operate. The humans just haven’t taken the time or effort to find out.
Enter our not so likeable “hero”, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a shallow, rather insensitive and not so bright Afrikaner bureaucrat, who, like his colleagues at MNU, sees the aliens as no more than pests, not meriting the respect beyond the common insect. For instance, when he is assigned the task of evicting the aliens from the crowded ghetto to District 10, a tent city no better than a concentration camp, he treats them all like imbeciles and potential criminals. When he finds an illegal “nest” (the aliens are forbidden to procreate), he cheerfully kills the growing young by setting fire to them and blithely reflects that their death-cries sound like popcorn popping. He even gives a colleague of his one of the murdered babies as a souvenir. Eric Repphun of The Dunedin School, describes Wikus as both “compelling and chilling”, given that “his casual racism towards the aliens is an uncomfortable mirror of apartheid [and] reflects racism accurately.”
It is only when Wikus is forced to interact with one as an individual and finally recognizes Chris as a “soul” that he shows true compassion and acts accordingly—which doesn’t happen until the end of the movie, by the way. Until then, he is a lame version of the reprehensible rest of MNU who reflect the fear and insecurity and consequent open prejudice and fear of humans toward “the other”.
We find out that MNU’s primary directive is not humanitarian to help the aliens but is pursuing weapons technology research and conducting experiments on them to acquire the secret to their DNA-manipulated weaponry. Through one of the interview sessions we discover that MNU is the second largest weapons manufacturer in the world. The plot thickens…
Jackson chooses his metaphors carefully, from the less than attractive insect-like aliens to the ordinary and feckless bureaucratic “hero”. Jackson dissects and lays out a shameful platter of our bullying nature, driven by our insecurities and fears and exposes us as a fearful, intolerant race. “The place is swarming with MNU,” says Chris to his son. I liked the reverse use of insect-terminology.
Chris’s son likes Wikus. “We are all the same,” says the boy with a wisdom that far surpasses anyone else there. He is, of course, referring metaphorically to the universal truth of a “family” of intelligence and compassion.
Meantime, Wikus had become a most valuable business artifact because he could operate alien weaponry. This points out one of our most appalling weaknesses borne from insecurity and greed: the devaluing of human and any other life to the level of commodity. Everything is commodity or product for the “rightful” use of those self-appointed “above the law” moguls.
As he lies on his back, about to fall out of his robotic “insect shell”, now far into his metamorphosis and spewing alien black “blood”, Wikus watches the shuttle rise up toward the mother ship, and smiles his victory; it is the aliens’ victory and ultimately Wikus’s too—for he is one of them now.
Wikus is the unlikable “hero”, more like Dante’s “everyman” a very ordinary man of shallow character with no real heroic qualities. He is a good enough person (he loves his wife and objects strongly to being forced into killing one of the alien adults). Throughout the film, he is offered several chances to elevate himself to “hero status” and each time he fails. It is only at the very end, when he is close to fully transformed physically, that Wikus demonstrates heroic qualities and sacrifices himself to save Chris and his son. This suggests, rather cynically, that humanity’s acceptance of something this foreign can only be achieved once we are forced to directly experience “the other”. It is a sad commentary on our inability to rise above our own limitations of deriving value through “self-image”. But it is one I tend to agree with. One of my esteemed colleagues disagreed. Objecting to this shallow portrayal of humankind, she attested her faith in our evolution. I hope she is right.
Largely overlooked by the Academy Awards, District 9 exposes the very worst in human nature with an unforgiving gritty quasi-documentary realism. It’s not a pretty film. It is not a story of humanity’s triumph; indeed, Wikus’s heroism is directly related to his physical transformation from human to alien (hybrid). He only acts as hero once he is mostly alien, spilling alien blood and seeing through alien eyes. Is this why District 9 faired so ill with the Academy?
Critic Eric Repphun calls District 9 a powerful allegory that deconstructs the post-colonial costs and asks unsettling questions about colonial powers. It is subversive science fiction that viscerally grapples with the ghosts of the past, particularly that of South African apartheid. “Its almost unrelenting dark vision of humanity” suggests that horrifying things hang “over the world of men like Wikus, who perform utterly irrational acts of prejudice and injustice in the name of safety and rationality, even after apartheid as an official policy has ended.”
Many viewers saw no further than the thrilling elements of this social commentary: aliens come and there’s a war with kick-ass weapons and cool creatures getting blown apart. But as Author Brian Ott notes, “it is a profound mistake to interpret the genre [of science fiction] literally.” It is not what the aliens are but what they represent that matters, Ott reminds us. Science fiction is both “the great modern literature of metaphor” and “pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics but of metaphysics,” adds Australian scholar and critic Peter Nicholls.