Monday, July 23, 2018

Why “District 9” Should Be Watched

This 2009 science fiction movie strikes at the very heart of what defines our humanity by reminding us of our past to show us the future.

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.

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5 comments on Why “District 9” Should Be Watched

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By Theresa H Hall on September 19, 2010 at 03:11 am

I like SCi Fi but I didn't like the sordid and dirty feel of the scenery. I felt very uncomfortable and wanted to run out of the theatre. Alas, I stayed until the ending. It had it's moments though.

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By SF Girl on September 19, 2010 at 10:02 am

Thanks for your comments, Bill and Theresa. Yes, it WAS gritty... uncomfortably so, Theresa. Films like that make me want to go home and have a hot shower. I was very moved by it, though. The grit and violence had meaning in this film.

I agree with you, Bill... SF is one of the very best genres to convey social commentary in film and literature, given that its premise--how we react to "other"--provides an excellent reflection of how we view ourselves. Thanks for the feedback

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By Beth Simpson on September 19, 2010 at 02:59 pm

I loved this film ... felt it was truly inspired but not at all for the reasons you dissect. I didn't see a relationship to the africans other then to show how incredibly savage they were as opposed to the Prawns who were eloquent and intelligent and were able to ultimately remove themselves from their plight ... which as we have seen the Africans have not continuously throughout history. .... still a good movie ... I think maybe your metaphor is off.

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By SF Girl on September 21, 2010 at 07:58 pm

Thank you for your comment, Beth.

I’m not certain which “Africans” you are referencing, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Because I think you may be selling either group short.

In setting his movie in Johannesburg, Jackson chose to make a point about choices in human history by drawing parallels with apartheid and the peoples affected by it. He could have just as easily chosen Berlin, Germany, or some town in the United States or many other places with a historic legacy of prejudice and overt racism. After all, prejudice, fear, cruelty and ignorance aren't traits exclusive to a particular place. That he chose Johannesburg, I thought particularly germane, given its history of hardship and violence and its wide range of reaction and counter-reaction by both oppressors and oppressed.

In the final analysis, both parties in Jackson's film are us: the oppressed and misunderstood aliens as well as the fearful oppressors or exploiters. How we react on both sides tells us who we are with lessons to be learned by both parties. Do we respond to our oppressors with forgiveness and grace like Nelson Mandela (a South African), Victor Frankl (a Jew) -- and Chris’s son -- or with feckless anger, violence and hatred, like Chris’s friend? Or do we give up, like Chris almost did? Recall that not all of the aliens were “eloquent and intelligent and noble”—they, like many of our own oppressed, fell prey to despair, hatred, and violence over the twenty years of their interment.

This is a film ultimately of HOPE. Hope for the fearful oppressors represented best by Wiko – an ordinary man who learns to overcome his prejudice through transformation; but also hope for the oppressed – the aliens who are also in the position to learn compassion and forgiveness. Do they? The movie ends ambiguously. It leaves you to draw your own conclusion.

ALL good science fiction grounds its metaphor in real history then compels us to look beyond the littoral to the universal truths that bide inside us. That is what metaphor is, after all. Every human being harbors fears (particularly of the "other") and must contend and deal with both sides of its menacing cousin, prejudice.

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By jennifervenget on February 28, 2011 at 02:28 am

District 9 is a great movie being nominated for four oscars. The first time I had watched best <a href="">science fiction movie</a> presenting action, emtion,thrill and drama.

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