District 9

This post was originally written on 6th September, 2009.
District 9 (official website: www.d-9.com) is about the problems posed by the unexpected arrival of an alien spaceship above Johannesburg, South Africa. When humans board the aliens’ hovering ship (which reminds me a little bit of Maggritt’s painting “Chateau des Pyrenees”), they find the aliens malnourished and in need of care. The officials set up an emergency camp for them which over the next twenty years (1990-2010) turns into a slum, ‘District 9’, the title of the film. Because the aliens look like crustaceans in the human eyes, they are referred to by the extremely derogatory term ‘prawns’. Eventually relationships between the aliens and the humans become so bad that the local government hires the multinational corporation and arms manufacturer, MNU (Multi-National United) to relocate the aliens to a more remote camp (“Sanctuary Park Alien Relocation Camp” aka District 10) far away from human contact.
This background is presented to the viewers in a mock documentary style complete with news footages and interviews with experts and MNU employees in the first twenty minutes. After this, the main section of the film begins to tell the story of the attempt of MNU to relocate the aliens. The lead character, Wikus Van De Merwe, is an MNU employee charged with leading the barely legal operation to move the aliens out of their shards where they have become comfortable. Through an accident, Wikus is exposed to some liquid which triggers his slow transformation from human to alien. Because he now has quality of both of the races, he is highly sought after by MNU, especially since he can now operate the aliens’ powerful weapons which were designed only to work with the creatures’ DNA. Some Nigerian gangsters (who sell the aliens cat-food, a product to which they have become addicted, in exchange for weapons) also want to capture Wikus.
The film has more to offer than the average Hollywood action film. Apart from the obvious metaphor for apartheid (the director, Neill Blomkamp, spent his childhood in South Africa during apartheid), it also features some Gothic elements. We see the distinction between Self (humans) and Gothic Other (aliens), onto which fear and anxiety of racial and class differences are projected. We also see some cannibalism. The gangsters have taken to eating alien flesh as a means of gaining their power to use space weapons. When the head of the gangsters sees Wikus’s alien claw, he becomes very jealous and wants to eat Wikus’s arm. Of course, the alien can easily be viewed as the ‘monsters’ in traditional Gothic stories. Generally they lead a fairly revolting lifestyle eating flesh and digging through garbage. But the film is more nuanced: the aliens have been forced into their current situation by the people. Mankind is also presented as monstrous within the film as the human characters are highly prejudiced, condescending, violent and even exploitative. This is suggestive of the Gothic tradition like Dr Frankenstein who creates his own monster and is thus part of the monster himself. The humans by putting the aliens into the slum have become a kind of monster themselves.
At the start of the film, it may be difficult to register any emotional attachment with either the humans or the aliens, since both of them are portrayed somewhat negatively. But towards the end, it becomes apparent where the director’s sympathy lies. As hosts, the humans’ patience with the guests understandably runs out after two decades. However, the humans’ policy of segregation and cruelty makes them even more unsavoury. Do you think the aliens voluntarily turn themselves into unwelcoming creatures? Do you think they don’t want to go back to their much more technologically-advanced home planet (which has seven moons)?

[from trailer]
Interviewer: Why did you come here?
Interviewed Alien: We didn’t mean to land here.
Interviewer: Why don’t you just leave?
Interviewed Alien: How can we go anywhere if you have our ship?
Interviewer: How do your weapons work?
Interviewed Alien: We mean you no harm. We just want to go home…

4 thoughts on “District 9

  1. Jonathan said: “At the heart of this thoughtful sci-fi/action film is one of my favourite narrative ploys of them all: the character transformation. I’m not saying it’s on the level of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone 180 degree switch from the beginning of “The Godfather” to that film’s chilling end, but it’s that kind of turn around. And I love it!

    On that note, Sharlto Copley, who plays Van Der Merwe, deserves a best actor nod for his performance. In a million years a movie of this genre stands little chance, acting-wise, of being considered by the Academy, but he was nothing short of brilliant.

    One last tidbit, as the son of South Africans I was in on the filmmakers joke – the protagonist’s surname Van Der Merwe (pronounced fun-de-merve) is the stand in name for idiot when telling dumb person jokes (what Canadians would call Newfy jokes).”

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  2. Did you know Copley had very little acting experience prior to this film? I agree with you that he is very good in District 9: an unlikely hero but very convincing. His character is emotionally complex and realistic and he plays it just about right. Do you remember the last scene? Wikus is totally transformed physically and yet he has not lost his human touch.

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