JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The intelligent and industrious Christopher Johnson (left) stands over the elaborate machine he has fashioned, which after twenty years of painstaking labour has allowed him to extract enough alien fluid to fill a canister.

Christopherís gun drops to his side and his shoulders slump as he chances upon the remains of one of MNUís alien-testing specimens.

Afterwards, Christopher reneges on his agreement to use some of the fluid to reverse Wikusí metamorphosis.

Having witnessed the medical experiments, he feels a new urgency to rescue Ďhis people.'

Wikusí appearance at the start of the movie.

Wikusí boss and father in law, Piet Smit.

Wikusís wife Tania, surrounded by the trappings of a traditional feminine domesticity, right down to the upturned hairbrush on the dresser.

Wikusís mother.

The checked shirt of Wikusís father and the backdrop of construction behind him hint at the class divide between him and Piet Smit.

Wikusí parents treat Piet with a degree of deference.

Piet treats them with a degree of condescension.

 

 

Christopher Johnson

The exception to the above observations is the alien Christopher Johnson. Industrious and intelligent, Christopher has been pursuing the same plan for twenty years. He is accumulating enough special fluid from the debris of alien technology scattered around District 9 to fuel a spaceship and return to the hovering mothership and then home. And despite the mode of alien reproduction that the film outlines for us, Christopher has a “son” whom he looks after.

In the documentary-style sequence at the beginning of the movie, we are told:

“What was speculated was a command module had detached itself from the main ship and then somehow mysteriously become lost.”

A little later, still less than twenty minutes into the movie, we meet Christopher Johnson. Almost immediately, the fluid collection project and its importance are established, but it is not until almost forty minutes later that we learn that the fluid will be used to power a small vessel which Christopher has been hiding under his shack, thus allowing us, perhaps, to connect Christopher back to the earlier comment about the command module and therefore understand him to be a commander of some sort. In terms of maintaining a degree of enigma around the fluid — which we understand to be important without knowing its precise function — this is effective. But the cost is a lack of clarity with respect to how we are to understand an important character.

Christopherís intelligence is contrasted with that of his companion. Christopher nurtures his son.
Christopherís companion reacts aggressively when confronted with MNU so the police quickly kill him. Christopher questions the legality of the eviction procedure.

When we first see Christopher, he is collecting fluid with the infant prawn, whom we soon learn is his son, and another adult prawn. The latter’s mental inferiority to Christopher is immediately established when Christopher has to tell him, as he has told him before, that he has picked up a piece of human technology, and that it is worthless. Soon thereafter, despite Christopher’s advice and entreaties, this alien reacts with violence to his evictors and is killed. (By contrast, we will later see Christopher question the legality of the eviction document he is presented with and refuse to sign it, causing Wikus to tell his colleagues, “This guy’s obviously… he’s a little sharper.”) After this, we do not see Christopher interact with another adult alien for the rest of the movie.

In short, Christopher’s relationship to the rest of the aliens is highly underdetermined. For the most part he is a lone genius figure, and his precise motivation for returning to the mothership and his plan of action once he gets there remain unspecified. We see him exhibit distress borne of species fellow-feeling when he sees the alien corpses which have been experimented on in the MNU laboratory, and which later cause him to say for the first time he wants to rescue his fellow aliens. And towards the end of the movie, an observer suggests in a documentary snippet that Christopher may return and lead an alien army. But these hints at what we might translate as class consciousness and collective action are not followed through.

The film creates the alien identification figure that its plot requires, but  the script does not do enough to help us understand how he “fits in” with the other aliens, either in terms of his level of intellect and modes of behavior, or in terms of his social location.

Wikus and his transformation

From the beginning of District 9, there is a tension between the movie’s simultaneous positioning of Wikus as a somewhat ridiculous figure, and as a character immediately invested with gravitas and mystique by the serious manner in which he is spoken of, in the past tense, by other characters to the documentary camera. Sometimes these two impulses are present in the same shot: Wikus’ own mother refers to others’ estimation of him as "not a very smart boy" before adding, "but he was my son." (It should be noted, even if only parenthetically, that the manic edge that Sharlto Copley brings to the role adds a further dimension, generating a magnetism that belongs more to the actor than to the character, but it still inflects our feeling towards the latter.)

No one else in the movie dresses quite like Wikus. His sleeveless beige sweater and gelled-down centre parting stand in particularly pointed contrast to the well-cut suit and well-groomed pate of his boss Piet Smit, and the quietly graceful appearance of Wikus’s wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood) — Smit’s daughter. The fact that Wikus’ boss is also his father-in-law is revealed to us in the same sequence that shows Wikus being chosen by Smit to lead the operation to evict the aliens. Thus, Wikus is presented as an inept middle management figure elevated by a fortuitous family connection. The class divide between Wikus’ family and the Smits is further underlined during a later party scene at the Van de Merwe residence. We see Wikus’ parents approach Piet, and the three fall into what appear to be their established roles. Asking about their son’s promotion, the Van de Merwes are eager and enthusiastic; Piet is aloof and politely condescending.

It is instructive at this point to contrast District 9 with Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). In many ways, each movie can be seen as an inversion of the other. District 9’s protagonist, as we have just noted, is a middle-class middle manager whose promotion is due not to merit but to nepotism. Avatar’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) also gets his break through a family connection (his twin brother has died, leaving behind an expensive piece of kit tailored to their shared genome), but he is a working class hero who, without training, shows the “limp dick science majors’ (not his words, it should be noted) how it’s done.

Wikus’ transformation is involuntary, induces nausea, and is figured as loss, both physical (in effective moments of body horror, we see him lose fingernails and teeth) and social: he is estranged from his wife and his home. In contrast, Jake’s avatar experience is one of control and exhilaration. Whereas his human legs do not function, with those he gains through his avatar he can leap through the treetops. He learns the skills and way of life of the Na’vi and ultimately leaves behind his dying home planet and culture — and their corollary, his paraplegic body with its emaciated legs — and embraces a new home, wife, and species!

In Avatar, paraplegic Jake Sully, by ‘becoming alien’... ... regains the use of his legs.
The Na’vi community and their synaptic connection to their ancestors via the ‘Tree of Souls’ … ... offers a hyperbolic contrast to the transcendental homelessness of human modernity.

Avatar can certainly be accused of orientalism/colonialism and of being schematic, but it cannot be said to lack clarity or detail in its delineation of the two cultures it pits against one another. The visual plenitude of the environment of Pandora is matched by the movie’s loving presentation of the Na’vi and their rituals and beliefs. Much of this presentation is geared towards offering a utopian remedy to the rootlessness, the “transcendental homelessness,” of modernity and postmodernity. The Na’vi live together in a single giant tree. Trees and their rootedness also provide the metaphor and the imagined mechanism for the tribe’s ability to commune with their ancestors via synaptic connections that they can freely forge (more on this later), via their hair, between themselves and the “Tree of Souls.”

By contrast, District 9, as we have already seen, presents its alien culture (or, to be strictly accurate, the portion of it represented by “the workers” who end up stranded on Earth) as a non-culture. We learn virtually nothing of the aliens’ home. Furthermore, the film gives only perfunctory treatment to the home to which Wikus wants to return.

When we first see Wikus’ wife Tania, she is sitting on a white floral bedspread, in a room with white floral curtains and pink lampshades, a wedding photo of her and Wikus in the background, and light streaming through the window. This “footage” comes from a time after Wikus’ disappearance. Tania is playing the chaste and devoted deserted wife, a role to which she is suited, and for which she seems pegged even before Wikus’s infection. We see her and Wikus together only in one scene (that of the surprise party thrown for Wikus to celebrate his promotion) and never together alone.[2] [open endnotes in new window] Later on, Wikus’ telephone conversations with Tania revolve around his promise to her that everything can be the way it was, that he will reverse his bodily transformation, and will come home again. That we are not given much of an impression of what home is, or shown why it might be worth striving to regain, does not work in these scenes’ favour.

The plot is arranged in such a way that confirmation of the onset of Wikus’s metamorphosis is simultaneously revealed to him, us, and a relevant professional figure. A bandage that Wikus is wearing as the result of a previous injury conceals his arm’s mutation until a hospital doctor removes the bandage. Following the revelation, Wikus is abducted, then goes on the run. Thus, the movie foregoes the opportunity to dramatize attempts at continuing ordinary life while transforming, or transformed, into another state.

This is a shame. Human identity and the boundaries that constitute it is one of the central themes of science fiction and horror. District 9’s moments of “body horror” work well enough. Vomiting, black nosebleeds, nausea and dizziness, the loss of fingernails and then of teeth: these all illlustrate experiences of physical discomfort or trauma which the viewer can draw upon personal experience to empathize with — making it all the more eerie that in this case they portend alien mutation. However, identity is crucially constituted by the network of one’s everyday relationships, activities, habits, tastes, and so on.[3] When the movie removes Wikus from this network instantaneously, the script curtails most opportunities to engage with identity as a social as well as a physical phenomenon.

Wikus’ transformation is figured as loss, of fingernails, and teeth, and home. Viewer and characters learn of the transformation of Wikus’ arm simultaneously.
Wikus’ vomiting ... …and black nosebleeds.
Wikus appears to crave the cat food ... ...but then hurls it away in disgust.

The movie also chooses to keep Wikus’ identity much more human than alien until the very end of the movie. His arm and torso gradually transform throughout, but he keeps his human face, voice and priorities up to the epilogue. A scene of Wikus eating cat food shortly after his transformation is revealed but ambiguous: he buys some, but spits out much of what he eats in disgust and tosses the can aside. Instances of him defending aliens over humans (a burgeoning instinct? — so Blomkamp suggests in the DVD commentary) are similarly underdeveloped.

MNU

At the beginning of the movie, as noted earlier, MNU is introduced to us as one of an interconnected network of actors, each regulating the others’ behavior. Furthermore, MNU’s offices and staff are represented not with the stark opulence of absolute power and metaphysical evil, but rather with a cheapness and, to use an exclusively British but most appropriate term, naffness. MNU is a place of felt-upholstered desk partitions and dingy bathrooms and strip lighting. It is a place where men dress in grey shirts, and promotion parties are festooned with streamers and paper banners. This mise-en-scène perhaps puts us closer to “the banality of evil” than to premeditated evil; close to the idea of a corporation staffed mainly by drab functionaries, which occupies a place within a larger system and responds to forces and opportunities as they emerge. However, the main engine of District 9’s plot, Wikus’ infection and metamorphosis, pushes the representation of MNU more firmly towards the sinister, the all-powerful, and the deliberately and directly dehumanizing.

Wikus’ treatment at the hands of MNU is a stark representation of institutional violence directed towards individuals and their bodies. In a sterile, steely laboratory setting, surrounded by monitors, a man in a clear plastic all-in-one suit stands over a medical subject and, holding up a drill, says to the camera, “Pain threshold, test one, DBX-7.” At the bottom of a screen scrolls timecode and the label “REF CAM.” As the medical technician begins to drill, we cut to a rear view of two men watching the experiment on a TV monitor. We hear Wikus’ yells of pain. “That’s a strong pain reaction,” one man evenly tells the other.

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