Monday, March 15, 2010

Why “District 9” Should Have Been the Most Important Movie of 2009

Science Fiction is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself—Frederic Jameson, critic
We call them “prawns”: bottom feeders, vermin: feared and hated aliens who descended unannounced—and unwanted—over Johannesburg twenty years ago. Their massive starship hangs poised over the crowded city, casting a daily reminder that we are not alone in the universe.

The ship came and hovered in the hazy skies over Johannesburg, in a pall of silence. Humanity waited for something to happen; nothing did. A United Nations team was finally dispatched to investigate and what they found was not an imposing conquering force of great superiority but a million starving refugees in a shipwreck. Multinational United’s (MNU) Department of Alien Affairs housed them in a compound while humanity decided what to do with them.

Jackson leaps into the story mid-stride, effectively skipping twenty years of feckless inter-alien relations to a nexus in the storyline, where we find the aliens incarcerated in a ghetto that resembles the South African townships: they are essentially not allowed out. The analogy between the marginalization of the aliens and the South African segregationist policy of apartheid is obvious and further parallels Nazi Germany, Palestine and other scenarios of irrational prejudice and cruelty. The aliens even speak in a language that includes clicking that reflects many native South African languages. So, begins Peter Jackson’s film District 9.


Jackson intersperses action scenes with “back-story narrative” provided through the device of expert interviews, ranging from sociologists to entomologists. Jackson filmed his opening scenes using hand-held video cameras and stop action in news reels and interview format to capture an authentic immediacy to this powerful social commentary of humanity’s first encounter with the “other”.

We first see the aliens as the humans see them: unattractive unruly and repulsive insect-like creatures, who are not terribly intelligent and are pathetically addicted to cat food—until we meet one. Chris Johnson (or so he’s been named by the humans, reminiscent of the white people’s renaming first nations peoples or the Europeans who came to America) is on a secret mission to get home; along with his son and others Chris has been secretly building a shuttle to get back to the mother ship for over 20 years by collecting a rare liquid to fuel their organic technology. We quickly realize that these creatures possess the intelligence and knowledge that reflects the technologically advanced spaceship hovering above the city and the alien weaponry that only they can operate. The humans just haven’t taken the time or effort to find out.

Enter our not so likeable “hero”, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a shallow, rather insensitive and not so bright Afrikaner bureaucrat, who, like his colleagues at MNU, sees the aliens as no more than pests, not meriting the respect beyond the common insect. For instance, when he is assigned the task of evicting the aliens from the crowded ghetto to District 10, a tent city no better than a concentration camp, he treats them all like imbeciles and potential criminals. When he finds an illegal “nest” (the aliens are forbidden to procreate), he cheerfully kills the growing young by setting fire to them and blithely reflects that their death-cries sound like popcorn popping. He even gives a colleague of his one of the murdered babies as a souvenir. Eric Repphun of The Dunedin School, describes Wikus as both “compelling and chilling”, given that “his casual racism towards the aliens is an uncomfortable mirror of apartheid [and] reflects racism accurately.”

It is only when Wikus is forced to interact with one as an individual and finally recognizes Chris as a “soul” that he shows true compassion and acts accordingly—which doesn’t happen until the end of the movie, by the way. Until then, he is a lame version of the reprehensible rest of MNU who reflect the fear and insecurity and consequent open prejudice and fear of humans toward “the other”.

We find out that MNU’s primary directive is not humanitarian to help the aliens but is pursuing weapons technology research and conducting experiments on them to acquire the secret to their DNA-manipulated weaponry. Through one of the interview sessions we discover that MNU is the second largest weapons manufacturer in the world. The plot thickens…

Jackson chooses his metaphors carefully, from the less than attractive insect-like aliens to the ordinary and feckless bureaucratic “hero”. Jackson dissects and lays out a shameful platter of our bullying nature, driven by our insecurities and fears and exposes us as a fearful, intolerant race. “The place is swarming with MNU,” says Chris to his son. I liked the reverse use of insect-terminology.

Chris’s son likes Wikus. “We are all the same,” says the boy with a wisdom that far surpasses anyone else there. He is, of course, referring metaphorically to the universal truth of a “family” of intelligence and compassion.

Meantime, Wikus had become a most valuable business artifact because he could operate alien weaponry. This points out one of our most appalling weaknesses borne from insecurity and greed: the devaluing of human and any other life to the level of commodity. Everything is commodity or product for the “rightful” use of those self-appointed “above the law” moguls.

As he lies on his back, about to fall out of his robotic “insect shell”, now far into his metamorphosis and spewing alien black “blood”, Wikus watches the shuttle rise up toward the mother ship, and smiles his victory; it is the aliens’ victory and ultimately Wikus’s too—for he is one of them now.

Wikus is the unlikable “hero”, more like Dante’s “everyman” a very ordinary man of shallow character with no real heroic qualities. He is a good enough person (he loves his wife and objects strongly to being forced into killing one of the alien adults). Throughout the film, he is offered several chances to elevate himself to “hero status” and each time he fails. It is only at the very end, when he is close to fully transformed physically, that Wikus demonstrates heroic qualities and sacrifices himself to save Chris and his son. This suggests, rather cynically, that humanity’s acceptance of something this foreign can only be achieved once we are forced to directly experience “the other”. It is a sad commentary on our inability to rise above our own limitations of deriving value through “self-image”. But it is one I tend to agree with. One of my esteemed colleagues disagreed. Objecting to this shallow portrayal of humankind, she attested her faith in our evolution. I hope she is right.

Largely overlooked by the Academy Awards, District 9 exposes the very worst in human nature with an unforgiving gritty quasi-documentary realism. It’s not a pretty film. It is not a story of humanity’s triumph; indeed, Wikus’s heroism is directly related to his physical transformation from human to alien (hybrid). He only acts as hero once he is mostly alien, spilling alien blood and seeing through alien eyes. Is this why District 9 faired so ill with the Academy?

Eric Repphun calls District 9 a powerful allegory that deconstructs the post-colonial costs and asks unsettling questions about colonial powers. It is subversive science fiction that viscerally grapples with the ghosts of the past, particularly that of South African apartheid. “Its almost unrelenting dark vision of humanity” suggests that horrifying things hang “over the world of men like Wikus, who perform utterly irrational acts of prejudice and injustice in the name of safety and rationality, even after apartheid as an official policy has ended.”

Many viewers saw no further than the thrilling elements of this social commentary: aliens come and there’s a war with kick-ass weapons and cool creatures getting blown apart. But as Brian Ott notes, “it is a profound mistake to interpret the genre [of science fiction] literally.” Science fiction is both “the great modern literature of metaphor” and “pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics but of metaphysics,” says Peter Nicholls. Ott reminds us that it is not what the aliens are but what they represent that matters.

15 comments:

Dalifan said...

I have to say, this movie did bother me quite a bit when I went and saw it in theatre. I think it was because of how dark the vision of our group was.

I am inclined to agree on one level with your valuation here, there has been plenty of evidence that the mob mentality seen in District 9 is alive and well today. Unfortunately...

But being optimistic, I prefer to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. I feel I have to say I do this because if noone believes in it, then it could cease to exist! More a leap of faith type of thing.

And maybe that's why this movie hit me in the teeth psychologically. It so paints a picture of the dark side of humanity and 'everyman', the lowest common denominator, that it leaves little hope for the best in us coming out without extreme duress...

I think I'll stick with the belief that a good portion of us would do the right thing and help someone before it got too far... Just for my own peace of mind;-)

Thanks once again for the thought provoking writing Nina!

Teresa;-)

Chris said...

Not to be nit-picky, but Peter Jackson was the producer. Neill Blomkamp was the writer and director of the film.

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Teresa! Yes, we must keep the faith! However, faith--not blind faith--is only relevant in the presence of its opposite: like courage in the face of fear; hope in the face of adversity; light in darkness. To show faith in humanity DESPITE recognizing its darker side, is truly where we need to be to take relevant action and inspire. And we need to remember history so we don't duplicate it. This is why District 9 is an important movie. We need to keep our eyes open--even if we don't want to...

District 9 is a clarion of hope in its challenge: it challenges us to show that we are better and more capable.

SF Girl said...

Thanks for the clarifiction, Chris. Appreciate it.

Being the writer and director of District 9, Neill Blomkamp is essentially the man behind the movie.

However, while the film's director and writer is responsible for the story, its message and how its communicated, its producer (particularly when its Peter Jackson) is ultimately responsible for its vision and I have no doubt that Jackson worked closely with Blomkamp on this and had the ultimate say.

This movie definitely had the "Peter Jackson" brand on it.

Anonymous said...

@ SFGirl
No. A producer has or should have very little control on the product. As person who is part of a family involved in film and television I can tell you that a producer's intended job is budget control and financing. He also oversees the project so that it is not total shit that they are making.

Your view is somewhat naive as to what the entertainment industry really is. The director and the writer, coupled with the work of the art department, director of photography and actors ultimately has complete control over what the tone and the style is. The producer is the between man for the film crew and the executives, making sure both sides are happy and nobody is going grossly overbudget. The producer should only step in creatively when the project is going in a direction that leads to a film that is unpalatable for the larger audience. If that happens they are overstepping their boundaries in the creative process.

What you identify as Jackson's signature style is actually Blomkamp's (see adicolor yellow and Alive in Joburg). What is happening in reality is an exceedingly rare occurence a perfect match for two creative individuals, where both find the interaction beneficial. This has happened in different combinations for different partnerships over the years. For example, The Coen Brothers and their DoP, Guillermo Del Toro and Mike Mignola (see Hellboy 1-2, Pan's Labyrinth, his proposed Lovecraft movie At The Mountains of Madnes, his proposed Frankenstein reboot and some of his stuff might show up in the Hobbit), James Cameron and James Horner, etc.

However what you described has happened in the past as well, when a filmaker/producer's style overwhelms the filmmaker's. See Poltergeist and Gremlins.

All in all though, Brilliant Analysis. Good Job!!!

Anonymous said...

sorry I meant to say
*in that case, the producer will not be overstepping their creative boundaries*
at the end of paragraph 2

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Anonymous...

Naive, eh? I prefer to call it delusionally idealistic ...or great dreaming... :) And I'm not sure I totally agree with you about the role (realizable role) of the producer...but more on that in a minute...

First of all, I'd like to establish that I do agree with you that the artistry should be and usually is the purvue of the director(that's the reason I always look to see who's directed a film to get an idea of its nature and quality) and each director, like any artist, whether writer or painter, has a "signature style" or voice (as we call it in the writer profession). I know this is what you were referring to in your remark about "signature style".

And, while I certainly recognize Blomkamp's "signature style" in the hand-held camera view and documentary style of District 9, this is not what I was talking about when I referred to Peter Jackson's "brand". It was his attention to film-excellence and artistic integrity (as evidenced by previous films he's both produced and directed) that I was talking about. It was also his "vision" -- and this SHOULD be the purvue of the producer, because if the producer does not have or share an artistic vision with the director, there will be serious problems between the art form and its delivery to the mass audience.

This leads me to the point of what the producer should be and what s/he actually is... (and this is also true of the publishing business or any business where art and commerce intersect):

My point about producer being the "last word" on the art form is germaine: by representing the investors and ultimately the target audience, they have the power and the licence to enter and interfere in the creative process. This is why it is so critical that their vision and that of the director mesh. This is why the artistic marriage of Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp works so well.

In TV a great example of Producer with incredible creative input along with and respected by his directors is David Kemper, Executive Producer of FARSCAPE; Kemper actually wrote many of the series episodes (the night before shooting!), improvised along with directors and writers and actors to achieve a coherent and incredibly dynamic and visceral show. This was possible through his VISION, which tied all otherwise disparate pieces into an incredible storyline that was as compelling as it was fluid. And, as far as I am concerned, TV at its absolute best.

You cited several other exemplary examples of such synergy in a motion picture. Such partnerships are happening more and more (where artists become producers and may even take on the director's role as well). They do this to achieve creative control and to produce exemplary art that supercedes the bottom line of budget.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I agree Nina. This film had a clear message, but because it was classed in the 'science fiction' genre, it was not voted by those in the academy.

SF Girl said...

I agree, Jean-Luc... Another friend/colleague of mine said the very same thing. As soon as a film is branded "science fiction" it appears to be taken less seriously as art form.

Just to go back to the discussion about magical collaborations of producer/director, and Guillermo Del Toro -- Anonymous and others might like to read my review of one of the examples Anonymous gave, Pan's Labyrinth:
http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.com/2007/05/pans-labyrinth-innocence-has-power-evil.html

Costi said...

Very good review, Nina!
"District 9" deserves to be the most important movie of 2009 and it actually is for many individuals. It didn't win an Oscar and it's a shame, but it still is appreciated by many. Sometimes, this counts more than awards.

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Costi! I totally agree...

Anonymous said...

District 9 is okay. The only time it is original is in it's first act. The second act was just a redo of The Fly and the third act was just out of hand video game nonsense. The themes the film bases itself on (aliens as Apartheid blacks) is almost entirely ditched after the first act and even in the first act it is not addressed with any incisiveness or poignancy. It doesn’t help matters much that Blomkamp abandons his documentary format less than halfway through to make room for the conventional bullet-spraying. Thus, what starts out as a socially conscious satire of South African race relations degenerates into a standard, thick-headed action movie, complete with ludicrous explosions and extended vehicle chases. It quickly becomes apparent that the emperor is naked. Later plot developments which fail to build on the themes and pathetic potty humor reveal the film’s true colors. It’s a film more concerned with showcasing pyrotechnics and gore than any challenging social commentary.

SF Girl said...

I totally disagree with you, Anonymous... Unfortunately, since you failed to identify yourself, you and your comment shall remain anonymous...

CandyCoatedSymphony said...

I agree 100% with this blog (extremely well written and on point). I absolutely loved this movie! It got better and better as it went on that I didn't want it to end. But I didn't only love it for the entertainment part(which is very entertaining, great storyline,action scenes..etc..)but bc it is so deep and touched base with exactly how man kind can be towards the things/people we view as "less then". To sum it all up this is one amazing movie, a masterpiece that deserves the title "GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME". There, I said it. :)

SF Girl said...

Thanks, CCS! And I'm glad you said it too! I'd like to see it shown in schools for commentary...