Science fiction shows its viewer spectacular things, but also often shows them to be commonplace to the inhabitants of its world.
Documentary rhetoric: Characters address a camera present in the world of the film. Figures crossing the screen imply that the shot is not pre-planned or staged. A corporate logo brands the screen.
During its dense preliminary exposition, the movie makes extensive use of ‘news channel’ footage, which, like its use of the rhetoric of documentary, uses a form associated with the factual to depict the fantastical. Contemporary television news’s use of headlines and scrolling text is used to convey a lot of information very quickly, lending an impression of depth and authenticity to the representation.
The signs policing the movement of aliens in Johannesburg…
... evoke the city’s Apartheid-era segregation.
An alien (‘Prawn’) in District 9.
A ‘Newcomer’ in Alien Nation.
The aliens possess grotesque physiognomies and eating habits which distance them from the human and align them with certain types of animal.
An easily-outwitted alien signs away his rights ...
…for a tin of cat food.
Like many science fiction movies, District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) presents a densely imagined and visually arresting alternative world. The viewer, as well as marvelling at the spectacle, is asked to use the details that s/he observes — things that the movie’s characters often take for granted — to form a picture of how the alternative world functions and to ponder what this might tell us about our own. As part of an overall critical account of District 9, organized (after an introductory discussion of its plot and presentation) around the key individuals and groups represented, I seek to demonstrate that when we follow through on the logic of what we are shown, the movie’s politics become less straightforward than they at first appear.
The movie is set in a South Africa where aliens have been living in Johannesburg for the past twenty years (their ship has been hovering over the city all this time, seemingly unable to move). The main plot gets underway when Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a field officer for large munitions corporation “Multinational United” (MNU), leads a project to evict the aliens from their homes in District 9 and “resettle” them further from the city. During a house raid, Wikus is sprayed in the face by a canister of fluid derived from alien technology. The fluid makes him sick, and it soon becomes clear that it is causing his body to metamorphose into that of an alien. Meanwhile, Christopher Johnson, one of the aliens, needs the same fluid to fuel his spaceship so he can return to the hovering mothership and get it moving again. Wikus’s mutation turns him into valuable commercial property in MNU’s eyes, principally because it allows him to operate the aliens’ powerful weapons, which interact with the alien biology and therefore cannot usually be used by humans. Wikus goes on the run, chased by both MNU and by gangsters who believe that by eating Wikus’ arm they can acquire his powers. After being told by Christopher Johnson that the alien fluid holds the key to being transformed back into a human, Wikus joins forces with him in a quest to recover it from MNU’s laboratory…
District 9 brims with inventiveness and eventfulness. Many of its sequences are presented as documentary footage: characters address a camera that is present in the world of the film. During these sequences, mobile framing helps to create the impression of a total reality, a complete world: the camera appears free to cast its gaze wherever it wants. In these sequences and in those where the camera is more straightforwardly a dramatic fiction camera, not present in the world of the film, the mise-en-scène abounds in revealing details, and looks extremely “lived-in” — an effect aided greatly by the extensive use of location shooting in Johannesburg.
An extended documentary-style sequence at the beginning of the movie deftly sketches a network of relations between groups including
Thus, and through the plot that ensues, a rich thematic cluster is established. The forced eviction and “resettlement” of the aliens clearly evokes South Africa’s apartheid-era removals of its black population. Images of signs that read “For human use only” and “No non-human loitering” and of aliens using metal sheets to shield themselves from bullets add to the texture of this particular allegorical strand. [open endnotes in new window] Director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp asserts on the DVD commentary track that the movie is also concerned with the more recent xenophobia in South Africa aimed at Zimbabwean immigrants. District 9 captures the way in which immigration is often constructed and approached as a security issue and a social problem. The warning manufactured by MNU and disseminated by the news media after Wikus’s escape from the laboratory tells population members that his mutation is the result of “prolonged sexual contact” with aliens and that he is “highly contagious” and should be kept at a distance of at least twenty meters. Such an official message evokes contemporary anxieties concerning infectious diseases, both sexually transmitted ones like HIV/AIDS and airborne viruses like swine flu influenza, and again it shows a “securitizing” response. In the shape of MNU, the film presents a shadowy military-industrial complex that operates outside normal legal categories, lies to the public about the primary objectives of its actions, tries to hide other aspects of its operations entirely, shapes at least to some extent the media coverage of its activities, and consistently acts with utter callousness.
It is disappointing that after this thrilling and complex sketch of a network of political actors, the movie narrows its scope to a much more conventional set of plot agents, focusing most attention on the three-way battle between MNU (and the private military contractors aligned with them), the aliens, and the gangsters (with Wikus switching allegiance from the first group to the second as the plot progresses). The government itself, aid agencies, pressure groups and city residents play no further part. The panel of experts returned to in documentary snippets throughout the movie serve principally to bolster exposition: the political position from which they propound their knowledge and of that knowledge itself is left untouched.
However, let us turn our attention now to the agents (individuals, groups and organizations) that the movie does depict in detail, beginning with the aliens.
The aliens: a social problem, not a society
The 1988 movie Alien Nation (Graham Baker) can be used as an interesting point of comparison here with respect to the representation of an alien population. Like District 9, that movie bases its narrative upon an alien race without conquering intentions arriving en masse in a large city with pre-existing social problems. In the case of Alien Nation, the city is Los Angeles, and the plot functions as an allegory for both race relations and immigration. When protagonist Detective Sergeant Matthew Sykes (James Caan)’s black working partner is killed in the line of duty, Sykes is paired with a “Newcomer” (known derogatorily as “Slags”), the first to achieve the rank of detective, thanks in part to a policy clearly designed to echo affirmative action. Newcomers are presented in a number of roles and stations: politicians, prostitutes, policemen, drunks, bartenders, violent criminals. Apart from having mottled and slightly misshapen craniums, two hearts, bodies that dissolve in salt water, a penchant for sour milk (which gets them drunk), and a susceptibility to a drug that does not affect humans, the aliens possess a physiognomy and appearance close to humans (but not so close that they might try to “pass” as humans; that is not one of the sci-fi tropes that the film explores).
Moreover, they also share human desires (in all their variety) — surely a prerequisite for their social integration, for how could one be part of a society without sharing any of the goals or needs of its members? Detective Samuel Francisco ("Sam Francisco," one of several names suggesting reverence for things human and a desire for integration), the most extensively-characterized alien, is introduced as the quintessential hard-working, upwardly-mobile immigrant, reproducing an American dream that citizens of longer standing do not quite believe in any more, even if it remains a nostalgic idyll. For example, in one scene Sykes, a hard-drinking divorcee, picks Francisco up from his house, where the latter, behind a white-picket fence, kisses his wife and son goodbye, causing Sykes to quip to himself “Welcome back Ozzie and Harriet.” William Harcourt, the chief alien-villain, is presented as being at home in the world of corrupt politics and profiteering.
Alien Nation thus provides an instructive counterpoint to District 9. In the latter film, the alien-immigrants are a little further from human physiognomy (especially, and importantly, when it comes to their faces) and a lot further from sharing human desires. What is dramatized is not integration but its impossibility.
District 9’s aliens have mouths with dangling tentacles, and behavioral tics including an obsession with procuring and consuming tins of cat food. As well as contributing to the texture of verisimilitude discussed above, these features distance the aliens from the human and align them instead with various animals. Alongside the labelling of the aliens as “Prawns,” the movie invites us to compare them with insects. One of the experts presented in the documentary-style sequences is a university entomologist, who tells us:
In another film, we could be invited to treat this colonialist view critically, and weigh it against other evidence. In District 9, though, it is a view that is extensively confirmed by what we see.
We see aliens foraging through garbage, being routinely bullied and outwitted by their MNU evictors (and reacting with hostility), getting fleeced by the gangsters when they sell weapons and/or buy food, urgently consuming any foodstuff they get their hands on (and in one case immediately vomiting it back up), and engaging in spectacular violence.
When Wikus speaks in one scene of “the Prawn” in general terms, he uses the masculine third person pronoun exclusively. And indeed, it is hard not to think of all of the aliens we see as male. With the exception of one child alien, there is no way of distinguishing between the aliens in terms of age. We do not know if they sleep; certainly we see no beds. Sickness and infirmity, like hunger or coldness, are not phenomena we are invited to imagine the aliens as having to confront.
An early scene sketches for us how alien reproduction works. During the evictions, Wikus discovers a shack with an animal carcass hanging inside, connected by a network of tubes to alien eggs. Thus, physical reproduction is divorced from the adult aliens — and we see no social reproduction. There do not appear to be families in the population. Each shack seems to belong to only one alien. Wikus’s reference to “gangster shacks” points to the only mode of social organization amongst the aliens stranded on Earth suggested by the film, one centred upon young males. As well as witnessing no child-rearing, we see no education or industry.
District 9 is a movie whose “immigrants” objectively are — and this without prospect of remedy — the threatening, marauding, uneducated, slum-dwelling, amorphous, unassimilable social problem of the xenophobic imagination. They reproduce without socializing their offspring, and lack prospects or even potential. The film thereby ultimately justifies the reactions to immigrants it ostensibly condemns. Different groups are shown wanting to either expel the aliens or protect their rights, but whether they react with hand grenades or hand-outs, no-one is shown to countenance the possibility of a functioning alien society by any possible human definition of the concept, either parallel to or integrated with the human population. The film builds this in axiomatically, on its ground floor, as it were, but we ought to remember that it did not have to. It decries xenophobia but presents a situation where progress and integration are rendered unimaginable.