Here, 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.
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.
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.