District 9


Daniel: Neill Blomkamp delivers something entirely unique in his 2009 debut film District 9. The film follows Wikus (Sharlto Copley) as he serves eviction notices to the residents of the alien slum which the film is named after. Twenty years before the start of the film, an alien spacecraft stops just above Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens are treated as refugees, herded into a confined camp that develops into a slum that is overrun with crime and corruption. Wikus starts the film ecstatic with his promotion at MNU (Multi-National United) which deals with alien affairs. Wikus finds himself on a path that completely changes who he is, in more ways than one.
I would venture to say that I have never seen a film use the “shaky cam” fly on the wall filming style as well as this movie does. Blomkamp does an excellent job at making the film, particularly the first half, an intriguing documentary style set up; all the while preparing us for and combining his overall narrative. While I generally find the particular style of filming distracting, this was an instance that truly engaged me. We aren’t given the standard alien film, we’re shown the politics, the public reaction and personal side of a story that centers not on alien invasion, but alien refugees. The concept of coexisting with aliens is not new to film, but it is almost always into the future, years after first contact. This story brings first contact face to face with the audience. The aliens don’t speak English, they’re barely humanoid and they’re somewhat repulsive. Fear and prejudice are the driving forces behind all legislation and public attitudes towards the unfamiliar in this film, a sentiment and power that human history is all too familiar with.

Paul: I definitely agree with your general feelings about the “found footage” shaky-cam style that’s so popular today. It can absolutely be a distraction, in the sense that it keeps me mindful of the effort required. To me, good movies need to make difficult things look effortless so we’re concerned with the story rather than the difficulty of any given shot. So I actually like that District 9 starts as nothing but a (fictional) documentary, but then mostly abandons that style as we follow Wikus in his struggles. Maybe that’s inconsistency on the film’s part, but I find that the opening scenes effectively establish the “realism” of the film’s tone. The pseudo-documentary helps me suspend disbelief and imagine what it would be like if this were a true story. (I love how seamless some of the special effects are – maybe not for the aliens themselves, but for their technology and especially their ship. There are some beautiful shots of that massive object floating over the city.) Then, as we really get into the story, the movie rightly pursues Wikus more closely than a mere documentary about what happened to him would. At the same time, the documentary “interviews” continue to pop up from time to time. It’s worth asking about the many genres, styles and tones that are being played with here. There are blatant political themes, scenes of horror, action, even family drama (involving both human and alien families). Do you feel like the mix is effective, or should Blomkamp have tightened his focus?

Daniel: It’s a genre defying movie. It encompasses so many themes and styles that in almost any other instance it might have seemed sloppy, but Blomkamp wasn’t trying to achieve the next Star Wars by any means. He took what he knew and what he had perceived about life and he gave us a film that showed life in an incredibly fantastic way. Life is horror, life is drama, life is action, it’s any number of things. Should intelligent intergalactic creatures crash land on earth today, I think we might very well see some of the same arguments and struggles that the characters face in this film. It’s a fantastic “what if” movie that, despite its fascinating subject and huge setting, never feels over the top.

Another thing that I thought the film displayed was one of the best character arcs in a movie that I have seen in a long time. I started out with a feeling almost akin to hatred towards Wikus. He was stupid, selfish and arrogant. However, by the end of the movie, due to extreme circumstances, he is quite the opposite. The satisfaction of seeing someone make such a full circle and such a clear revelation as to what is right and wrong was one of the best parts of the movie. The characters that are being interviewed for the documentary portion are, for the most part, unfazed by the events that took place, they keep their same opinions on how to treat the aliens, on how to go about dealing with them diplomatically. Had Wikus not been the hero of the film, but rather one of the employees simply interviewed for the documentary, he would undoubtedly have been unchanged. It took extenuating circumstances to open his eyes to the reality of what was going on. While Wikus certainly displayed the greatest arc, did you observe any that might be worth pointing out other than the protagonists?

The alien who teams up with Wikus is probably the other most-fleshed-out character. I don’t think he has an arc as complete as Wikus, but both of them do learn to empathize and help each other out. One of the things I’ve observed about the movies I saw in 2009, District 9 included, is that, while I admire them for a lot of reasons, I don’t find their villains compelling. Other examples would be the Star Trek reboot, Sherlock Holmes, and Up. (The exception, and my favorite movie of the year, is Inglourious Basterds.) In District 9, the villains are pretty stereotypical: the bad bureaucrats and the bad, sadistic soldiers.

The reason I mentioned the mix of genres was that some of them didn’t work quite as well for me as others. I found the political message in this movie to be fairly obvious; I think the movie really gets going when the social issues become the backdrop to the personal story, one man literally learning to see things from another point of view. The body horror sequence was effective, coming up with fairly imaginative ways to show the results of contact with an alien substance. But apparently, after a certain amount of time, those results slow down enough for the movie to go into its action scenes. Those scenes did include interesting ideas about the alien’s biotechnology, and they advanced the plot in exciting ways, but they’re still not quite as believable as what came before. While it certainly is true to life to feature various emotions and situations, the way one led to another sometimes felt artificial. But I share your enthusiasm for the development of the Wikus character, and that really is the crucial factor. He starts out as pretty much the opposite of a hero, but through a chain of events kicked off by a complete accident, he is able to learn and grow, to do what it takes to survive. Even at the end, he’s at least partly motivated by self-interest, but, as we’ve mentioned, he is willing to help out an alien as well. It’s not a flashy character arc. It’s much more subtle, and I would say more authentic than one that sees him transform, say, from the aliens’ worst enemy to their greatest champion.

This movie pretty clearly wanted to be more than just one man’s story, though. It’s set in South Africa and references concentration camps, ghettos, and gang violence. What were some of the things you felt the movie had to say about issues of racism and prejudice?

There is a thin veil that separates events in this movie from parallel events in reality. Throughout history, all the way up to the present day, there have always been these “camps” for people. Granted, this movie portrays extraterrestrials, but you can see how it could pertain to “aliens” from other nations just as easily as other worlds. There is a fear associated with the different, and along with that fear comes a need to establish dominance. Internment camps, concentration camps, refugee camps; these all share at least some elements that the “prawns” experience. The emotional weight to support this film comes from the fact that Blomkamp based much of the film on actual events dealing with Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa. The short film which this movie stemmed from showed residents of Johannesburg being interviewed about the aliens living among them. In the interviews there was fear and prejudices, much like what we see in the movie, however Blomkamp later revealed that some of the interviews were in regards to the Zimbabwean refugees and not actually scripted actors discussing the aliens. This movie deals with the very real issue of racism and prejudices head on. With very little effort one could easily switch out the alien creatures with human refugees and it would be just as believable. The message is an old one, but it has never been delivered in such a fascinating and visually cool way.
I think one area that needs to be pointed out is the action sequence towards the end. Though it branches off from some of the more personal themes and drama, you have to admit it’s one of the most exciting, creative and fun battle scenes in recent film history. Seeing the various alien weapons explode onto the screen in the theater was one of the most fun I’d had watching an action sequence in years. The drama, however, doesn’t just halt when the guns start blazing. It’s in the midst of this action sequence that we see both characters at their lowest point (Christopher Johnson, the alien, perhaps at his lowest just before the action starts). The director caters to sci-fi fans by giving us excellent, compelling drama, as well as awesome action sequences. District 9 strays from the stereotypical “alien movie” mould. How do you think it relates, specifically to the science fiction genre, as a whole?

Paul: In a way, it’s really carrying on the tradition of science fiction. I think back to the 1950s, when stories about extra-terrestrials touched on Cold War themes. Even before that, H.G. Wells addressed social issues with his stories. Fantastical stories are a great way to entertain and educate at the same time. As for the specific issues brought up in District 9, there may be other sci-fi works that use “aliens” as a stand-in for immigrants and minorities, but the only one that comes to mind right now is Men in Black. Of course, that movie makes the connection briefly and lightly, whereas District 9 is a much more serious exploration of the themes. But both fit nicely among other socially responsible science fiction films.

When I say that the political themes are obvious, though, what I mean is that the metaphor is so unmistakable. It was a nice touch to make the aliens so physically repulsive. I’ve compared them to the beautiful blue aliens in Avatar, themselves obvious stand-ins for Native Americans. How hard can it be to love and cheer for beautiful creatures? In District 9, we at least have to look beyond appearances. But besides that, with the villains so undeniably evil there isn’t much room for ambiguity or honestly asking why racism exists. That was my impression, especially now, with three years’ added experience with which to view it. Still, some things definitely resonate. I didn’t know about the inclusion of real interviews about real refugees. That they fit into the film so seamlessly was a great touch. The fact that the aliens are called “prawns” reminds me of the Hutu calling the Tutsi “cockroaches” leading up to the Rwandan genocide. This type of dehumanizing language (I know, in the movie they’re alien creatures, but they’re certainly not animals) gradually makes racism seem more and more reasonable. When one interviewee says that the aliens genuinely look like prawns, it’s tough to argue. That’s probably the subtlest and most effective comment on racism in the film.

All in all, my enthusiasm for this film isn’t quite what it was when I first saw it, but I still find it very good and interesting – an example of thoughtful science fiction that I’d like to see more of.

District 9 has a largely pessimistic atmosphere. The conditions of the refugees, the prejudices both in the streets and in the government, the selfishness and needless violence against the aliens; all these things are prevalent constantly throughout the film, and they’re presented as normal. Because of this we are given the satisfactory arc that makes the movie, particularly the ending so powerful. Wikus is not only the hero, he’s a symbol of hope. After he is torn down so utterly and completely that it seems he has nowhere to go, he holds on. At one point in the film Wikus’ wife holds up a rose fashioned out of metal scraps. She doesn’t know what happened to him, she doesn’t even know if she’ll ever see him again, yet she is left with a tiny shred of hope. In the cruel events that unfold in this story, Wikus goes from the biggest opposition the aliens have of returning home, to practically becoming their champion, and in doing so giving up everything but hope. For all its pessimistic bravado, the film ends on such a note that restores the viewer’s faith in the humanity that is presented within the scope of the movie.


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One Response to “District 9”

  1. District 9 | Popcorn and Peril Says:

    […] Wikus is a man that could be representative of anyone. He is a weak man, a bigoted worker who thinks highly of himself and very little for the aliens he is tasked with protecting. The majority of the population really could care less about the rights of the interstellar refugees. The “real world application” is glaringly obvious, they represent real world counterparts seeking asylum, not from other planets, but other countries. In the director’s commentary we learn that the aliens are symbolic for the Nigerian refugees in South Africa. Through the eyes of Wikus we see the sickening consequences of intolerance. When a hatred becomes common place in society it becomes horrifyingly easy to cross moral lines that would otherwise be considered unforgivable. Through the course of the film Wikus is forced to see through the eyes of those he has dedicated his life to persecute (all under the mask of protecting them, of course). Paul Boyne and I discuss this movie far more in depth on our joint endeavor of a blog; Gaffer Macguffin’s Movie House. […]

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