District 9’s hyperrealistic approach, replete with interviews and video news footage, creates a sense of immediacy in documenting both race relations and the encroachment of the digital on the material world.

The enormous, disabled alien ship hovers over Johannesburg, while the alien population is ghettoized in the District 9 slum.

The relocation site moves the aliens further away from Johannesburg. As in Jurassic Park, fences and signage are frequent images, implicitly keeping the photographic and digital worlds separate, and relegating the digital to a ‘caged’ or ‘contained’ status.

Wikus is infected by black liquid in a canister that alters his DNA. As in Jurassic Park, genetics play a key role in the film, and subtly allude to the ‘DNA’ of photographic and digital images which look similar on the surface, but are fundamentally different at a ‘molecular’ level.

As Wikus’s transformation progresses and he comes to identify with the aliens, he becomes marked with the duality of a hybrid character.

The film concludes with a series of interviews, and a wedding photo featured prominently. The picture pertains not only to Wikus’s lost love, but is also presented as evidence of his erstwhile ‘photographic’ self.

In the final shot of District 9, what appears to be a fully mutated Wikus glances toward camera just before the film fades out. Having succumbed to the digital, he now looks at us with alien eyes – but is there still a ‘Wikus’ (or a Sharlto Copley, a human, a photograph) to ‘see’?

The horror of the image body

In films that mix animation and live-action, most characters fall orderly on either side of the line, but there are also those who exist unstably between or attempt to cross over. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Judge Doom is a Toon masquerading as a human, who seeks to exterminate his own kind and run a concrete freeway through ToonTown. His betweenness positions him as dangerous, and of a sort similar to that of the black slaver – of no community, and ultimately a menace to all. Clash of the Titans has a hybrid character in Calibos, who in close-up appears as an actor (Neil McCarthy) in make-up, and in long shot as a stop-motion effect. A son of deity, he was cursed by Zeus to become a hideous creature; while certainly grotesque in appearance, however, Calibos’ hideousness is particularly driven by his instability as an image (he is an actor, then an animation), and in this he even becomes a bit of a pathetic figure, an image with no place.

Cool World’s Holli Would is punished for crossing boundary lines and aspiring to be human. Her crossing is more than spatial, as it necessitated a transformation – the assumption of a human body – in order to exist in photographic space. While her transformation goes awry, other transformations are acceptable, provided they go the right “direction,” The Cool World’s human enforcer Frank becomes a happy Doodle (united with his Doodle girl Lonette), and Jack, a blissfully ignorant one, as the downgrade in the implicitly racial status is acceptable. Eddie Valiant manages to save Roger, Jessica, and all of ToonTown by finally regaining his affection for the Toons and coming to terms with his own “Toon nature,” slaying the weasels with loony antics. His transformation is a performative change in character rather than an imagistic shift, however, which allows him to be associated with the Toons without becoming one of them – a sympathizer rather than a mulatto. 

Gollum’s oscillations and transformation also occur at the level of character, but are additionally inflected by his unique image status. Having once been (a small) human, but morphed into a visual effect, he seems to have no place among the photographic world; unable to return, he is finally destroyed in the (CG) lava that originally produced the One Ring (the one technology) to “rule them all.” Gollum’s troubling of the demarcation between the photographic and digital worlds can be contrasted with Jar Jar Binks, the CG character in the Star Wars prequels (George Lucas, 1999, 2002, 2005). Jar Jar never challenges the divide between imaging technologies, as does Gollum with his photographic past, split personality, and attempts to cross over from isolated digital creature to acceptance by the photographic hobbits. Rather, Jar Jar is a more static character, without the consuming obsession and repressed past that drive Gollum, as he is more content with his raced and hybrid status. Instead of a crisis of being that leads to destruction, Jar Jar receives a superficial ending in obtaining the improbable position (because of his bumbling nature) of general and senator; subject to neither ostracism nor destruction, he fades into irrelevance and has all but disappeared by the last film.

Alien ‘prawns’ (background) are disenfranchised and considered bottom-feeders and a menace. Their digital aesthetic eschews fantasy elements and Hollywood’s penchant for dazzling with visual effects... ... so the aliens occupy an uncomfortable place as neither characters nor spectacle, or even as clear villains or antagonists. Occasional close-ups, particularly of the alien Christopher Johnson, invite sympathy – and simultaneously repel.

Transformation – the horror of it, as well as the fantasy – are central to two recent films that combine live-action with digital characters, District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) and Avatar. The interspecies transformation depicted in District 9 presents the horror of trans-image mutation couched in an alien invasion film. Released four months before Avatar, Blomkamp’s sci-fi allegory of xenophobia and apartheid depicts a refugee alien population confined to a shantytown in South Africa. Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an Afrikaner administrator, is charged with facilitating the relocation of the aliens to a government camp further from the city. While serving eviction notices he becomes infected with an alien substance, which begins his transformation into an alien – or “prawn,” as the aliens are derisively called in the film. Blomkamp uses a documentary style that begins with interviews and a camera crew and continues with handheld camerawork and a realist style after the more formal documentary elements are removed. The aesthetics of the film sustain its agenda as a parable of apartheid South Africa, while at the same time producing a particular tension between the hyper-realistic filming style and the CG aliens that populate the film. 

Wikus’s transformation begins with illness and black fluid leaking from his nose, then is manifest in his hand, which had sustained a previous injury. The change is isolated to his hand until the latter part of the film, when his body begins transitioning further, and in the final shot we see that Wikus has become a prawn. The alien appendage marks him as hybrid, while also serving as a metaphor of sorts for our interaction with other digital bodies that stand in for our own, in the form of avatars and videogame characters for which the hand is the point of connection at the keyboard or game controller. In the film, the hand enables Wikus to operate alien technology that is only compatible with alien DNA, making him very valuable to both the corporation that has been exploiting the aliens and the Nigerian gang that operates a crime ring in District 9. Wikus’s alien hand is thus both enabling and stigmatizing, though for most of the film he is focused on the latter aspect – the rejection by his wife, the corporeal transformation into the thing he hates, and his mulatto status (which, in a smear campaign, is attributed to infection from interspecies sex). 

Wikus’s transformation begins with disintegration of his (photographic) body, as fingernails rip off, followed by the mutation of his hand into that of a prawn. With the discovery of his alien hand, the private military company Multinational United (MNU) forces Wikus to test out alien weaponry that only works with alien DNA. The parade of different weapons and the discovery of what each can do mirrors the acquisition of weapons in FPS videogames.
As with Gollum, the prosthetic is an intermediary stage toward becoming digital. MNU discredits Wikus by broadcasting a photoshopped image suggesting that Wikus had sex with an alien, evoking the Cool World taboo against intercourse between live-action and animated characters.
After being subject to discrimination and hiding out in District 9, Wikus’s sympathy for the aliens grows, and he helps Christopher Johnson by donning an exosuit resembling a prawn body. The former shot is matched with this one, drawing a comparison between the human Wikus in the (mechanical) alien body and the humanlike ‘soul’ in the alien body of Christopher Johnson – as well, implicitly, to the human actor providing a motion-capture performance ‘inside’ the digital construct

The isolation of the mutation to the hand allows Wikus, and the audience, to keep it at somewhat of a distance, as self but not self (“If thy hand offend thee, cut it off,” goes the Biblical refrain – which Wikus attempts, but only manages to remove the tip of what seems to be his thumb). His mental faculties remain human; it is the body that threatens him, the body of the other, of the visual effect, which has begun overtaking him. At the end of the film he is shown making small flowers for his wife out of junk as an indication of some lingering humanity, but it is not exactly clear what is left of Wikus. This final shot of him semi-hunched amidst the garbage and refuse, exhibiting the vaguely animalistic quality that characterizes the aliens, is ominous in its indeterminable association of the colonized body and the embodied consciousness that is produced in the body colonized. It’s as if this chapter in the life of the organism formerly known as Wikus is too dark and inaccessible to show because he is now an alien, an other, and no longer a character.

Whereas Gollum is presented mainly post-transformation, with the character transition and CG morph shown only in brief flashback, Wikus’ metamorphosis is diegetically central to District 9. The horror of the transformation is intensified by the fact that Wikus can only find refuge in the alien slum, further establishing his status as an outsider even as the alterations to his body only affect a small percentage of it, and evoking historical formulas for determining the status of mixed-race individuals. While hiding in the slum, Wikus comes to sympathize with a certain alien, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), who is the rare parent of an alien child and is presented as smarter and more capable than the other aliens. The irony of the name “Christopher Johnson” applied to an inhuman creature clearly recalls colonial and slaveholder naming practices, which work to remove history and culture from the colonial subject in the application of a name that itself becomes ahistorical and generic in the process. In a sense, the name brings to light the CG body’s lack of history and culture, or even perhaps an unconscious, in contrast with the implicit cultural and psychological aspects of character.[9][open endnotes in new window] The CG character speaks with a human voice, often moves in the way that humans move, and perhaps resembles humans in many ways (with great attention to mimicking their capacity to be photographed), but it exists outside of the historical, spatiotemporal, and biological structures into which people are placed. Like the slave, it is given a new culture to replace the one missing, but one it only holds superficially, which never fully attaches to the body.

As with Gollum, however, humanizing the character also humanizes the visual effect in its instantiation as a body. But as the other nears or comes to resemble the viewing subject, distinctions fade and subjectivity is threatened, and thus difference must be reinstated. Wikus and Christopher Johnson come to understand one another, but never quite converge at the point of shared embodiment. When Christopher Johnson’s child, seeing Wikus’s arm, says, “We are the same,” Wikus replies sharply, “We’re not the fucking same,” insisting that the difference between them persists. But when Wikus later risks his life to give Christopher Johnson a chance to get to the mother ship, he does so in a mechanical exo-suit designed in the form of an alien body. In an outward expression of the alien DNA that has become a part of his bodily system, Wikus becomes the internal mechanism that guides the external alien-shaped body, which foreshadows his eventual transformation.

Thus Wikus takes on the image of the alien, but the problem of images remains. Confined to the hand, the exo-suit, and the unseen internal reconfiguration that has altered his DNA, Wikus’ “alienation” from himself is threatening but marginalized, kept from his human consciousness and for the most part from his human image. His loss of fingernails and teeth present a disintegration of the body that elicits grimaces from the audience but preserves the photographic image, as does the alien hand held “at arm’s length.” Wikus’ social alienation is portrayed as unfair as he is condemned despite the fact that his human psyche apparently remains intact – socially he gives off the wrong “image,” and hence is presented by the film as unjustly ostracized. The aliens, however, are not given this same consideration – their (CG) images are intrinsic to their characters. Christopher Johnson generates pathos in his plight and sympathy for his worthy objectives (to get his son to safety, to get back to his home planet, to rescue his people), but doesn’t quite become a sympathetic character. Like Gollum when channeling Sméagol, he approaches the racial boundary but can’t cross it, hindered by the barrier that not only separates the animated and photographic worlds, but also prohibits a CG or animated protagonist in a live action film.

Wikus’ transformation threatens to depersonalize him as a character and disfigure him as an image, and finally removes him from the narrative altogether; with the exception of the final shot (which may or may not actually be Wikus, or Copley), the film concludes with a return to the interviewees, who speculate on the fate of the absent Wikus. Christopher Johnson, while humanized in a way that the other aliens aren’t allowed to be, experiences little transformation, character or otherwise. He manages to escape Earth, but not his otherness.

James Zborowski notes that the aliens, while certainly mistreated, are more social problem than society, characterized as uneducated slum-dwellers of the xenophobic imagination for whom “progress and integration are rendered unimaginable” (n.p.). They are not positioned as potentially transformable or even assimilable, but are contained within the impoverished fixedness integral to the colonial construction of otherness. As Homi Bhabha writes,

“fixity . . . is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition” (94).

Both the aliens and Wikus in his final state are kept by the film within certain bounds; no alien finds acceptance or status of any kind in the human world, and Bhabha’s statement can be applied as an acute descriptor of the shot of Wikus in full alien form, having entered a rigid racial discourse that highlights his degeneracy into the new body/image, while at the same time becoming an ambiguous figure, a “disorder” that will have to be dealt with in some way. However, Blomkamp doesn’t expand on the ambiguity inherent in this complex and problematic shot, which itself implies and even demands narrativization. By ending the film here, Blomkamp fixes Wikus in a disturbing political, social, and psychological uncertainty – fixed in unfixedness, in the terror of the body of the other, of the irreferential image.[10]

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