copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
District 9 and its world
by James Zborowski
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:
“What we have stranded on earth in this colony is basically the workers. They don’t particularly think for themselves; they will take commands. They have no initiative.”
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.
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.
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!
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
Less room is left for humour in the juxtaposition of Wikus’ suffering and the laboratory staff’s utter disregard for it as the scene progresses. A wild-eyed, shirtless and sweating Wikus is made to pull the trigger on various alien weapons — like the “pain threshold test,” calmly catalogued by a man who barks impatient commands at Wikus while he babbles. Compliance is shown to be as irrelevant here as it was when Wikus was evicting aliens: when he refuses to pull the trigger, an electric prod is used to generate the necessary nerve reaction.
"This body represents hundreds of millions, maybe billions of dollars’ worth of biotechnology," two MNU executives are told. “There are people out there — governments, corporations, who’d kill for this chance.” Strapped and clamped down, Wikus reaches out for the arm of one of the executives, his father-in-law, but his arm is firmly pressed back down onto the stretcher. When the others raise the next of kin issue, the father-in-law looks down at Wikus’ face and declares, “I’ll handle that.” The group walks off, and the scene ends with the sound of the click of a camera, as an impassive technician photographs Wikus the medical specimen.
Blomkamp clearly finds technology “cool” (one of his favourite words on the DVD commentary track), and the technological sights and sounds of the movie are lovingly crafted — to that extent technology is a “feel-good” presence within the movie. Once again though, we are faced with a blend of the ostensibly thrilling but the ultimately pessimistic. Throughout the movie, technology is roughly equivalent with weaponry, and the relations between the aliens, MNU and the gangsters are determined by the desire on the part of the second two groups to acquire and use the weapons of the former. The interface between the biological and the technological leads only to further division and destruction: Wikus’ body is turned into a commodity to be exploited so that MNU might expand its arsenal.
Again, a contrast with Avatar forcibly suggests itself. In that movie, technology facilitates enhanced cross-cultural — cross-species — understanding: Jake (and others) transcend the human, at least physically, a prerequisite for their being able to participate in Na’vi culture. (Avatar is in this respect more dialectical than District 9. There is also a destructive, exploitative and colonialist dimension to this enterprise: some of Jake’s superiors intend that he will use his position to gather the intelligence necessary to remove the obstacle to mineral extraction that the Na’vi represent.) Avatar’s environmentalist creed is also given a contemporary technological gloss. The source of the Na’vi’s spiritual wealth is their ability to tap into what enlightened scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver) at one point raptly describes as a “global network” of synaptic connections. In an intriguing rhetorical move by Cameron, contemporary information exchange networks do not straightforwardly divorce us from being in tune with our environment and the others who comprise it; they provide a potent metaphor — and model? — for this desirable state.
The Nigerian gangsters
The aspect of District 9 that has attracted by far the most Internet commentary is its use of “Nigerian gangster” characters. One discussion topic within the group “Light Up Nigeria” (“Advocacy for improved power supply in Nigeria using social communication and networking”) is “District 9 Hates Nigerians” — which has attracted 28 posts. The person who started the thread also set up a petition (now closed) which attracted 79 signatures. CNN reports that the country’s information minister issued a statement condemning the movie’s “stereotyp[ing]” and “stigmatiz[ation]” of Nigerians. The controversy was also reported, for example, in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, and in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Two very interesting blogs on the topic, one of which exonerates the movie while the other attacks it, can be found on the Pan-African News Wire and on Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog.
As is often the case with the new media phenomena that we are all still coming to grips with, the form that these reactions have taken is as important and interesting as the claims that are advanced within them. The blogosphere becomes a tool via which advocacy groups and individuals can make themselves, their views, and their representations of Nigerian people available to as many people as a representation in a high-budget science fiction movie distributed by a multimedia multination (Sony), surely an unprecedented and welcome phenomenon.
One route available if one wishes to defend District 9 is to suggest that it is illogical to move from the proposition “all the characters that the film identifies as Nigerian are criminals who believe that by eating alien body parts they can acquire alien powers” to the larger and more damning proposition “the film believes that what is true of its Nigerian characters is true of all Nigerians.” The movie then remains culpable of employing a stereotype, but the scope of that stereotype is not as large as some of its critics would hold.
Taking a slightly different tack, we might ask, “Within the movie, how specific or exclusive to the Nigerian gangster characters are the negative attributes that the movie represents them as possessing?” (This can return us to the caveats expressed above regarding how far we are permitted to extrapolate from a representation of members of a group to claims about that group in its entirety, but we shall leave those aside for now). Nnedi Okorafor makes a telling point when she asks,
“Why were “The Nigerians” the only human beings living with the aliens? Were they the only ones primitive enough to live with aliens?”
Contrastingly, Abayomi Azikiwe asserts,
“If District 9 really does hate Nigerians, it clearly hates its powerful, white characters even more. Objecting to Nigerians being portrayed as morally bankrupt criminals seems pointless when almost every group of characters in the film have little or no regard for the law.”
I would certainly be keen to make the point, with Azikiwe, that the Nigerian gangsters’ behaviour and attributes are compositionally motivated, their brand of “muti,” for example, providing a parallel with the laboratory experiments of MNU, both being attempts to acquire the powers of another species.
The question of intentionality, though it cannot provide the final word here or elsewhere, is also an interesting one. My sense from watching the movie and listening to Blomkamp talk about it is that the representation of muti in particular is in the movie not because its director (and co-writer) is bent on depicting Nigerians as savages, but because it adds to the flavour he wants to lend his story-world, and because he finds the process mysterious, compelling, and again, probably “cool.” (This, one might say, is just a different form of racism, and one would be right to do so, but it does not mean that the distinction is not worth making.)
To quickly home in on just one more aspect: the name of the leading gangster in the movie raises questions about intention, and returns us once again to the issue of how representative a representation ought to be taken to be. “Obesandjo” (the character is played by Eugene Khumbanyiwa) is, as many commentators have observed, rather close to Olusegun Obasanjo, the name of a recent Nigerian president. Should we be reading this part of the movie, like others, through an allegorical lens? Or is it “just sloppy research”?
MNU possesses several black employees. For example, Wikus’ two principal companions on his eviction rounds, Fundiswa Mhlanga (Mandla Gaduka) and Thomas (Kenneth Nkosi) are black. It also appears to have a black CEO, whom we see on repeated occasions in the movie acting in a public relations role. However, when it comes to the exercising of real power there is not a black character to be seen — in the laboratory where men experiment on aliens and executives decide that Wikus should be dissected, and in District 9 where MNU’s hired mercenaries rule by force . This simultaneously exempts black characters from the worst evils of the munitions corporation and excludes them from power, which is shown as still ultimately residing with white characters. ‘Once again, a combination of this film’s ambiguities and blind spots, and vexing issues surrounding representation more broadly lead us towards general theoretical ruminations. When it comes to the representations of particular groups, what can we legitimately argue is being said by what is being shown, and to what extent are we permitted to extrapolate and generalize?
District 9 is an arresting thought experiment: what would happen if aliens arrived on earth? The scenario it envisages is a pessimistic yet thrilling critique of human xenophobia and the repressive and exploitative tendencies of states and corporations. The aliens would be viewed with fear and suspicion, subjugated, and if not set to work then exploited for whatever other potential for profit and power they possessed.
However, moving beyond the movie’s evocative iconography and penetrating dramatizations of encounters between the powerful and the powerless, its alternative world possesses less resonance and depth than its teeming surface might suggest. The alien population is represented as a perfect set of the attributes that colonialism and xenophobia alike assign to “natives” and immigrants respectively, thus blocking from the outset any prospect of progress or integration, and contradicting the movie’s more liberal impulses. Christopher Johnson’s exceptionality remains largely unexplained, and he is cut off from the rest of the alien population. The character of Wikus is left little room to breathe because of the conflicting roles he must fulfil: figure of fun, allegorical pawn, central identification figure. Like the aliens, Wikus is not granted a social existence that we can believe in or value. This makes the home that he wants to return to nothing more than a stock concept, and limits the movie’s ability to effectively dramatize a theme that, given its genre and action, is crucial to it — that of identity. The movie’s treatment of its “evil corporation,” MNU, usefully summarizes for us the pattern of District 9 as a whole. It begins by promising nuanced contemporary socio-political analysis, sketching a complex network of competing supraindividual actors, but then, in the service of a chase narrative, the film narrows it focus and coarsens its representations. As the classical Hollywood cinema at its best endlessly demonstrates, narratives focused on individuals can dramatize “impersonal social forces” and offer far-reaching critiques of institutions and modes of social organization. However, I cannot see the evidence to argue that such a critique is fully sustained or developed beyond District 9’s introductory scenes.
2. One might have hoped, in a movie concerned with segregation and boundaries, that the movie might see fit to visually mark the fact that Wikus (surely?) lives in one of Johannesburg’s 600 or so gated communities or is at least somehow definitively separated from threats to his property. Overall, District 9 does not make as much of boundaries as it might. One clear exception is the first entry of the armoured vehicles into District 9, where we see a giant set of gates roll apart. More subtly, but wonderfully, later on the movie, when Christopher Johnson is reassuring his son about the place they are being removed to, Wikus – a man who in a former life hammered on shack doors – feels he cannot intrude on this scene without first announcing his presence by respectfully knocking on the door frame.
3. Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis" (written 1912, first published 1915) is a superlative instance of the exploration of this theme. Although the story begins with the line “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect’ (p.76), the ensuing narration provides a detailed portrait of petty bourgeois family life, and uses Gregor’s transformation to create situations that throw into relief the stultification of the mode of living represented. Franz Kafka. Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Trans. and ed. Malcolm Pasley. London: Penguin Books, 1992.
14. Andrew Britton. The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton. ed. Barry Keith Grant. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2009.
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