District 9

alienHere, again, we have a movie that everyone is raving about. There are certainly some interesting things going on with District 9. A sci-fi horror film with social commentary beyond the reactionary politics of the Reagan 80s is always nice. Sure, the themes of racial injustice have been explored before in this genre, but never with as much tension as a South African setting can provide. But, I found these explorations in District 9 to be surface level, almost offensively so at times, and disturbingly…racist. 

I’m going to give away a lot in this review. You should know that up front since this is one of those movies appealingly surrounded in mystery. In order to really look at the hidden agenda in this movie, though, it’s important to know some of the key plot twists.

So here’s the basic premise: aliens have landed in Johannesburg, the humans “take care” of them by putting them into refuge camps of sorts and basically start to kill them off through starvation and forced sterilization. In the midst of a relocation program, our “hero,” Wickus Van De Merwe, is sprayed with an alien fuel and starts to get sick. Before we know it, Wickus is turning into an alien and being used for secret government weaponry programs. The only being willing to help him is an alien named Christopher. They must battle government agencies, Nigerian witch doctors, and crazed father-in-laws in order to get Christopher back on his mother ship and headed to his home planet, with the hopes that he will someday return and be able to turn Wickus back into a human.

Scene-from-District-9-200-001

Wow. That kind of sounds stupid when you spell it all out. Sounds a lot like a summer blockbuster, actually, and after talking this one over with my husband Scott, I’m thinking District 9 isn’t really that much above the rest of the action movies you’ll be watching this year.

I’m reading Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan right now and I really like the way Robin Wood just lays the social/political problems with movies out there in bullet point style. So instead of trying to form a cohesive argument, that’s what I’m going to do here:

1. The Nigerians – probably the most blaringly obvious problem with the film, though I have yet to read an intelligent reviewer that brings them up at all, unless it’s Armond White, who everyone thinks is bonkers. But doesn’t anyone think it’s weird that in a movie preaching against racial injustice there is a whole group of people characterized by their barbaric culture? There are no “good” Nigerians represented in the film. They are all gun-toting cannibals that want to take advantage of a bad situation. Not a single redeemable one in the bunch. How does that make any sense, and why is it being ignored?

2. Culture hijacking – When Wikus starts to turn into an alien, it’s not just his body that begins to turn. He is suddenly able to use alien technology. Now, either the alien technology that is presented as complicated is actually simple enough to operate based on instincts alone, or being an alien is completely wrapped up in DNA. I’m not talking about the weapons that merely require a pull of the trigger. I’m talking about the alien spaceship and body armor that Wikus is suddenly able to operate with extreme skill. Wikus doesn’t really need Christopher The Alien’s help, and he proves this when he betrays Christopher and takes off in the spaceship alone. Wikus is immediately accepted into the alien culture and immediately fits in because their culture seems to be based on genetics alone. The only thing separating them from us is their blood? Is it really that simple? No nurture, only nature? Doesn’t that seem really primitive? Really simple and unexamined? It matches the way Christopher’s character is developed: not at all. We at first think he is making a terrorist effort to make everyone look the same by turning them all into aliens, we then find out that he’s actually just collecting fuel to get home. He doesn’t have a significant dark side. He cares about his son and he wants to get home and that’s really all we get from Christopher. Borrrrring. But I guess with such a simple culture, you can’t really get too deep.

District 9 Non Human

3. Because of this supposed simplicity of the alines, it seems the most appropriate emotion is pity. Despite having superior weaponry, there isn’t any real rebellion on the part of the aliens. They tear apart their own neighborhoods, but never stand up to The Nigerians or the South Africans that have put them into this predicament. The reason, we are left to assume, is their naivite, an attitude that is particularly dangerous to this issue. And also culturally inaccurate! During apartheid South Africans weren’t all so totally passive, obviously, or there would still be apartheid!

There were things I liked about the movie. I liked that there were few characters to relate to in a positive way. Everyone is implicated in the racism of the film, including and especially Wikus who laughs as babies are being burned and, even until the very last frame of the film, seems to be acting selfishly. This was a powerful statement in a film so politically charged. If only they had made those kinds of character inquiries into Christopher and his son.

Am I being too picky? Like I said, I really appreciate the fact that there is some sci-fi out there this year that makes me think. There are just things about this movie that I think make it almost more dangerous than a movie that is more blatant. The again, maybe it’s just an imperfect movie with some pure intentions. I don’t know.

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5 Comments

Filed under Whitney

5 responses to “District 9

  1. A bit of a rebuttal:

    1) I also felt that the major problem he film was the portrayal of the Nigerians. And while the whole superstitious eating is pretty much unforgivable, I did see their presence as part of what the film was saying about colonialism. Here was a displaced ethnic minority using the tools of colonialism against the white majority (capitalism, militarization, drugs), but on the other hand also to exploit a new displaced minority. It is also of note that the only character who does anything self-less in the film is Wikus’ African successor, who becomes the whistle blower at the expense of prison time.

    2) The film alludes to a common motif in Sci-fi literature regarding alien races; that they have reached a point where social classes are enforced by genetic engineering. The aliens which are found on the ship are suggested to be the underclass, perhaps the slave labor of the aristocracy which were able to jump ship. In all of the group systems (MNU, the warlords, the aliens on/off the ship), the value of life is determined by what goods they can procure or manufacture. The aliens present a new paradigm because they are, through their genetics, the potential commodity. However, since they do not help the humans operate the weaponry, they are viewed as worthless. And the way that Wikus and MNU treats them, it is as a disposable non-living thing, almost like a crop. Essentially the weapons manufacturer and the Nigerian warlord want the same thing, to get the alien weaponry, and essentially do the same things to try and acquire it. This changes with Wikus. Both the Nigerians and the MNU scientists desecrate Prawn bodies to try and acquire the bio mechanical power which will allow them to use the weapons. Both want to cut Wikus up and use his component parts. Wikus doesn’t become, to the security contractors, an alien political threat, which he appears to become inadvertently, but rather an enormous business asset. While Wikus can operate the guns and the armor suit, those are both bio-engineered, he fails at flying the ship, and Christopher and his son are able to manipulate far more complex technologies than Wikus.

    3) I don’t think the aliens are standing in here as the Africans during apartheid. The aliens are not marginalized in their native land, but rather immigrants. I think what the film was doing was taking the argument outside of race, well at least human races, and look at fundamental societal systems which create inequalities among groups of people. Here was a city that has seen decades of racial injustice, and when the aliens arrive, it seems that they have forgotten all of the lessons of the past.

    Though its always good to point out when films are being wreckless and this film toes that line, but I think it does so with good intentions.

  2. I don’t know, but I’m just not very anxious about this movie.

  3. Rich

    … But isn’t that the point of the movie? Racism? Racial segragation, and what it does?
    I thought that was the point of the whole completely stereotypical depiction of whites, Nigerians and aliens: how treating people differently makes them different and feel threatened.

  4. Jean

    omg ur such a loser! i love this movie! is one of the best ones EVER… so… i just want u to know that the movie is sooo great n if u didn’t like it ur shit…

  5. Yuu

    I just saw this for the first time today, and got curious, and looked up reviews of it. I do see where you’re coming from, though to a point.

    A huge problem I did have with the film was, yeah, the Nigerians… It’s bad enough that I have it ingrained in my mind to automatically think of anyone from that area to be superstitious, wearing a necklace of bones and bouncing around some kind of random fire thinger. [Thank you, racial stereotypes.] But seeing them assuming that they could gain the ability to use their weaponry by eating the flesh of the prawns.. Um, wtf?

    Though honestly with the way they were treating the ‘non-humans’, I don’t really think that in this movie they should have been portrayed positively. That was probably the point of the movie, really.

    Overall, I liked it.. Not because of the somewhat fail of a plot, but mostly because of the graphics and the idea that OH LOOK, Humans aren’t the good-guys for once. Because really… If any of this actually happened…It’d probably go down kinda like this. Government control, riots, raids, evictions, and a lot of unnecessary death.

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