District 9

Monday, May 03, 2010

With apartheid over, whitey in South Africa must be awfully pissed off. What to do now that the black population supposedly has equality? Thankfully, in District 9, a bunch of aliens arrive for the general populace to focus their hate and fear on. Who needs blacks when you have prawns?

The use of the term prawn for the aliens is a deliberately dehumanising epithet (if the word dehumanising can be applied to visitors from outer space). It’s much the same as calling a black person a nigger. It’s a way of building a wall between yourself and the other person – the name gives you the permission to discriminate because it makes them seem less than human. And of course, when you’re dealing with aliens who happen to look like bugs, it’s a whole lot easier to disassociate yourself from them.

One of the things that surprised me about the beginning of District 9 was how much it reminded me of The Office. The pseudo-documentary style of the film and the acing style all reminded me of Ricky Gervais. I was expecting something a lot more straight-faced.

Consequently the film reminded me of RoboCop. A lot of the social commentary comes through humour. For instance, there’s a scene where MNU (the company that’s in charge of policing and relocating the aliens) moves into District 9. Everyone that rolls into the camp is fitted with body armour. Everyone except a black bureaucrat. He’s not important enough to have protection. I mean, sure apartheid is over, but he’s still ‘blek’.

And then you have the way that the aliens are evicted from their shacks. They’re handed a clipboard with a piece of paper attached to it, and then if they so much as touch it, this is counted as a signature – they’ve agreed to give up their property. These aliens don’t have a choice about moving, but the MNU pretend they do. It’s kind of like the Nazis evicting Jews. But instead of breaking down doors with guns and jackboots, the South Africans evict the aliens with guns and forms. There’s only the pretence of due process.

What’s so pleasing about these early scenes is what a complete shitbag the central character is. Wikus is like a malicious David Brent. He doesn’t care about the aliens. He only cares about forwarding his own career, so there’s a lot of dark humour to be enjoyed in the early scenes. One of my favourite examples is when he meets a child prawn and tries to win the child over by calling himself the sweetie man. He’s so creepy and disingenuous that he’s reminiscent of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He has all the charm of a bucket of slime.

Of course, the alien arrival comes down to one important thing: money. The humans only care about the superior technology that the aliens possess and they want to harness it for their own greedy purposes: they want to dominate and they want to get rich. They certainly don’t care about learning from a different civilisation. They don’t care about expanding their knowledge. They just want to line their pockets.

Wikus has to learn the evil of this the hard way. He gets infected by some alien liquid and slowly begins turning into a prawn himself. There follows some Fly-like scenes where we see Wikus falling apart as his DNA mutates into that of an alien life form. But it gets even worse when his superiors realise that Wikus can now use alien weaponry. You see, the alien weapons that everyone has been so keen to harness work on a molecular level. Therefore humans can’t use them. Well, that’s until Wikus begins turning into a prawn.

One of the most nightmarish scenes is when a terrified Wikus is forced to shoot prawns using the aliens’ own guns. Strapped to a chair and made to pull the trigger, he’s the shadowy organisation’s perfect guinea pig. If they can vivisect him before he fully transforms, they can maybe harness this technology.

Fortunately for Wikus, he manages to escape. But now he’s a fugitive and the media widely reports that he became infected because he fucked a prawn. This is maybe a dig at South Africa and its dysfunctional relationship to the HIV virus. Rather than embrace scientific fact, the country still wallows in nonsense and lies.

There’s no doubt that after its imaginative beginning, District 9 becomes a bit formulaic towards the end. The final act is a wall of action. And while it’s highly enjoyable action, it’s a slight disappointment. Much like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, you feel like the filmmakers chickened out at the very end and decided to go for the box receipts that some big action sequences would generate.

But at least the filmmakers make the action exciting. Wikus manages to harness an alien robot thing (it’s kind of like a fancy ED-209 that you can get into) and begins kicking MNU arse. And in one excellent (and inexplicable) moment, Wikus fires a live pig at an MNU soldier. It’s a baffling little moment, but one I approve highly of. Can anyone really have enough pig?

The end sees a prawn rooting through some garbage to create a flower out of a scrap of metal. It’s obvious that the alien is Wikus. And it’s only now that he can see the beauty of life and its possibilities. Only when he’s in someone else’s skin is he capable of empathy and understanding. Hopefully the rest of us don’t have to go through such a dramatic transformation to reach the same level of understanding.

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