District 9 is one of those films that, when you examine it in pieces, it doesn’t seem that amazing. If you were to ask me about any specific piece of the film: the action, the cinematography, the effects, the acting, the writing, etc. I would say that it might fall in the “good” or “pretty good” category. As a whole, however, the film manages to constantly combine those “good” elements into great scenes and chains so many great scenes together that a truly wonderful and unique story results.
This review/critique is packed with spoilers, so don’t read beyond this point if you’re squeamish about such things. Also: why haven’t you seen this movie yet? Go! Now!
“Not What We Expected”
District 9, set in the slums outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, is full of squalor and violence. There are a lot of disturbing scenes that come off as neither gratuitous or unrealistic, but instead remind us of just how barbaric life can be. In the early documentary-style sequence of the film the initial arrival of the aliens, pejoratively called “prawn,” is recounted as being utterly mysterious because once the mothership stops, nothing happens. The massive, Independence Day sized mothership simply sits above the city, silent and, for all intents and purposes, dead. We learn that the mothership had to be cut into and, via camera footage from the helmets of the original probe team, we see the first contact as it happens. The film introduces us to the prawn the way they were introduced to humanity. The line from one of the interviewees (an international watch group spokesperson) captures it perfectly when she says, “The aliens were… not what we expected.” The prawn are helpless, frightened, and mired in their own filth. Pathetic, malnourished, and dying, they are loaded onto helicopters and brought to an area outside of the city.
I honestly can’t think of an equivalent alien introduction in any major film. If an alien race is dying, we have to warp to their planet to help them. If an alien race is disgusting, they are in sycophantic league with the evil empire. If an alien race is intelligent, they are far more powerful than us, here to help, judge, or harm us. In District 9 the prawn effectively collapse at our doorstep, and we respond by dragging them inside, locking them in the basement, and feeding them cat food. I know the allegory of “the other” is obvious with the aliens of D-9, but what isn’t obvious is how we are exposed to them. We don’t get to see the species at its best, or even its average, but in dismal condition, struggling to survive, from the get go. The prawn have no negotiator, no way to communicate, and must be saved from their own invalidity. From the first interaction, the prawn are at the behest of human kindness.
Most interesting is that this grossness and weakness humanizes the aliens. Frailty itself becomes an aspect of the human condition. Furthermore, there is an immense diversity to the prawn. Though primarily done with colorings and hilarious, misappropriated clothing (my favorite is the pink bra), the variations among the prawn also include stature, face shape, voice, and mannerisms, make individuals strikingly easy to distinguish from one another. Unlike, say, Star Trek aliens or the Lord of the Rings uruk hai, which are given their subtle variations by human actors, all of the prawn in District 9 are played by the same actor. The prawn are based on a queen/drone model, which makes the uniqueness of the prawn all the more interesting, given that they are all male (or perceive themselves as such in human terms) and, theoretically, interchangeable. The obvious “they all look the same” critique of xenophobes is refuted visually, like so much in District 9, and never stated explicitly. We, as viewers, simply see that they are different by virtue of watching the prawns and following their story.
There are a few critics out there describing District 9 as racist. On the one hand, this interpretation is based on the prawn as a stand in for blacks in the slums of Johannesburg. On the other hand, this interpretation is based on the portrayal of the Nigerian crime lords, who are bloodthirsty, have a witch doctor, and cannibalize alien parts. I’m inclined to agree initially, until one remembers that there are so many negative portraits of humanity in this film, one begins to wonder why the critic failed to note the other portrayals. The scientists in the film are psychopathic, clinically preparing to dismember a human while still alive, using a shock stick to force him to fire various weapons, and showing zero remorse or concern for the grotesque manner in which they receive or treat alien specimens. The employees of MNU are shown in various turns as conniving, moronic, sycophantic, ignorant, racist, manipulative, and cruel ranging from the CEO (Wilkus’ father-in-law) to his simpleton employees who believe anything they hear about him. The MNU shock troops gleefully shoot what they know to be intelligent beings. Additionally, anyone who has done even cursory studies in Nigerian culture knows that the drug lords and crime bosses that permeate the country cling to the most ignorant and vile superstitions possible.
If there is any commentary to be drawn from either portrayal, that is, aliens as blacks or blacks as barbarians, it is a positive one. The director, Neill Blomkamp, explicitly shows us that the prawn have incredibly advanced technology, a powerful familial bond, deep emotions, high intelligence, and an incredible will to survive. Yet they come off as sloven, disgusting, parasites that revel in cretinous and revolting slum life. How many times has the argument been made by racists, “If they’re really better than this, why do they live like they do? Addicted to drugs (cat food), in disgusting living conditions, and behave horribly.” What Blomkamp is exposing is that the aliens, like many minorities before them, are a products of the ghettos into which they’ve been placed. Excising a group from society leads to black markets, barbarism, and anarchy. The prawn aren’t a stand in for blacks, they are a stand-in for any group that is ghettoized by society and then kept there by the inescapable results of that treatment. As for the Nigerian crime lords as cannibalistic, superstitious heathens, I have two responses. The first is that there are multiple black characters throughout the film that are not negative, in fact less so than many of the white characters (particularly the two men who accompany Wilkus on his eviction) and are also shown as regular citizens caught up in the mess. The second response is that portraying crime lords as superstitious and borderline insane is accurate in general, and, given the insane belief that raping virgins cures AIDS that is pervasive in Africa, it is unsurprising that older forms of superstition remain. I find it incredibly interesting that the critic refers to eating alien as cannibalism, which is worth of unpacking in and of itself. To criticize Blomkamp for being racist when his portrayals of humanity in general is supremely bleak and his social commentary is one that exposes inhuman behavior as often the result of inhuman treatment, is not only wrong it is backwards and deliberately ignorant.
The full, totalizing effect of casting the aliens this way is to prevent us from ever seeing the aliens as anything but a total species. They aren’t an army led by a charismatic or evil alien leader (Kahn). They don’t have an ambassador to our civilization (Klatuu). They are simply a population of others, fighting to survive. And in that, they become a stand-in for humanity as a whole.
“We Are The Same”
A good deal of the power in the film comes from Blomkamp’s ability to build the story without explanatory dialog or indirect hinting. Wilkus turning into a prawn is, like much of the film, simultaneously a painfully obvious metaphor and a key element of the plot. What makes it fascination is that metaphor is so down played it actually becomes powerful and poignant. As Wilkus becomes more and more alien, he becomes a better human being and, in turn, better understands and accepts the prawn. There is only one moment where Blomkamp slaps the audience across the face and does it in such a quick, passing, dismissive way that, once again, it somehow works. Wilkus is sitting inside the dropship with “Christopher Johnson,” the prawn trying to save his race, and his son. The son is very intelligent but extremely naive. I particularly like that the prawn have proper children, as opposed to just larva that metamorphose into adults. The importance of childhood/youth in the human development as intelligent beings has been widely speculated and theorized, so it makes sense that a species more advanced than our own technologically would have a similar phase. Anyway, the son is examining Wilkus’ arm and, putting his own next to it, says, “we are the same.” The line from the son is a standard kid behavior, comparing one thing with another. Wilkus takes offense and shrugs away, and that’s it. That brief interaction is the only time there is an explicit mention of the two species being similar, and even that must be inferred.
What makes this “sameness” worth analyzing is that the prawn are so different. Though never stated explicitly in the film, in an interview with the Onion AV Club, Blomkamp notes that the partial reason for the condition of the prawn is that their queen has died. Despite her loss, the prawn are able to reproduce (asexually?) using artificial means involving cow carcasses and a complicated, jury-rigged contraption. Beyond that, the species is arthropod-esque, having an exoskeleton, extra arms, mandibles, and a wholly different diet. They speak in whirs, hums, and clicks, are chemically different enough to have strange reactions to what seem like inert compounds (cat food), and are utterly directionless without a leader. Unlike humans, which form small social groups that then organize into higher and more complex forms (couple, family, tribe, town, etc.) the prawn seem only to organize very small, impromptu groups for a single task and then return to their individualized behaviors. “Christopher Johnson” seems to be an organizing force, able to keep other aliens on task as well as capable of more advanced planning (fuel gathering, piloting).
Even facades of similarity end up drawing big red circles around the strangeness of the prawn. The extremely normal name, “Christopher Johnson” for the main prawn character is not an effort by the director to normalize or make the character more sympathetic by giving him a familiar name. Christopher’s “name” is a parody of slave names and other normalizing efforts done to “foreign names” (i.e. a guy named Mohamed going by “Moe”). Furthermore, his name isn’t even an effort at approximating his name in his language using English phonemes. One could even argue that the prawn might have a nameless culture (we just don’t know). Those in the critical studies set know that naming a thing can “call it into being” so naming Christopher at all is actually a human activity, but the utter disassociation between Christopher’s name and what/who he is manages to undermine the discourse based benefits one might normally attribute to it. One of the most common scenes in an aliens-meets-humans film is the name exchange, which is both inverted (Wilkus knows Christopher’s name because of the eviction notice) and not a trade but a order (Christopher’s name is assigned).To name a bipedal insectoid alien that speaks in whirs and clicks using its Lovecraftian mandibles “Christopher Johnson” is an intentional decision on the behalf of the director to both trigger a humorous response at the absurdity of the behavior and to underline the grossness of imposing a name on another.
The differences serve to highlight just how much variation can actually exist on the surface between two groups while still allowing much deeper similarities to persist. Over the course of the film, Christopher and his son slowly remove our perception of the prawn as disgusting, nearly feral creatures to show they possess all the attributes of personhood we would normally attribute to humans. In turn, Christopher is shown to make complex plans far into the future, to have strong familial bonds, to be loyal and compassionate, to make rapid, impromptu decisions (including articulate lies), emotional bonding to fellow aliens (scene in dissection room) and to possess a sense of higher morality (vows to keep his promise). Additionally, his son shows curiosity, adaptation, playfulness, large concept intelligence (salvaging broken dropship with tractor beam), and very high levels of empathy. The dramatic and philosophical impact of learning all of these facts is that we know the prawn are an advanced race, more advanced than humans, from the beginning but due to the initial contact of squalor and the resultant perpetuation of it due to slum life, we think of them as ignorant and barbaric. Each of these moments of personhood or “humanness” demonstrated in the prawn is emotional and touching not because it is a discovery but a reminder, that is, the viewer is forced to recall the intelligence and complexity of the species they are judging as inferior.
But these revelations aren’t restricted to the prawn. Wilkus and his wife, Tania, represent the only reminder that human beings can behave humanely in the entire film, save perhaps the distant sociologist talking-head on the documentary parts of the film. Wilkus’ transformation from nebbish bureaucrat into self-sacrificing hero is, like our exposure to Christopher Johnson, not a discovery but a reminder: humans can be good, decent, loving creatures. Tania’s love for Wilkus, even when she knows he is likely a prawn, is displayed in the few clips we get of Trina talking about things Wilkus has made for her. That Blomkamp sets up Wilkus’ foible (making dumb gifts by hand) and turns it into his heroic gift and a sign of his remaining love and humanity after the transformation is superb. Again, there were so many opportunities for Blomkamp to knock us over the head with the “love is more than skin deep” and other schlocky pap, and he manages to get the same effect with almost no direct dialog on the subject. A strange equivalence occurs with Christopher’s son who initially fixes a little astronomy machine because he likes to fix things and later is able to reprogram the mothership from the dropship. Blomkamp does a marvelous job of reminding the viewer that we often disregard that which can possess the most meaning and purpose for us later on.
In the end, the film becomes a perfect thought experiment exemplifying what would happen if we maintained the human DNA rights based system we currently have and championed by bioconservatives. Rights, in our current system, are derived from being a member of the human species. While constructed as a way to avoid racism, sexism, and a plethora of other normative legal problems, “human rights” actually hinders real ethical progress regarding the origin of rights. Like James Hughes and others, I advocate a system of personhood. When trying to come up with a set of criterion for the achievement of transhumanism, I noted that a system of rights that could easily incorporate an alien intelligence would be a good indicator that we had a transhumanist/personhood based theory of rights instead of a humanist/DNA based one.
As a hypothetical, I find alien rights to be an excellent test, but people would argue it isn’t practical now and is irrelevant to the average person’s life. My counterpoint is that it is a way of considering rights in such a way that non-normative people, that is, the broadest definition of “queer” one could use (beyond just sexuality, but other categories marginalized by social structures) would benefit in relation to the current system. Defining rights by a humanist/DNA based standard allows for a masking of rights and legal nitpicking that entrench normative structures. For example, personhood would define marriage (a vestigial legal structure in its own right, but that’s a debate for elsewhere) as a legal and economic bond between two persons. As a person has to be fully capable of consent and autonomous legal action, personhood based marriage would allow a vast range of relationship types (monogamy, polygamy, same-sex, opposite-sex, transsex, you get it) without a slippery slope to absurd arguments like animal-person marriage or child-adult marriages. Why? Because children and animals don’t have full personhood because they lack the intellectual capacity and maturity necessary for knowledgeable consent and are not recognized by the state as legally autonomous. As such, sexuality and gender no longer become relevant legal issues in regards to the legal act of marriage.
District 9 exposes the nativity and danger involved in our current right system, one which has no ability to anticipate new oppressed groups and, instead, only grants them rights once the screaming becomes loud enough, and then slowly and begrudgingly. The prawn of District 9 are a stand-in for any group with full personhood (a trait unaltered by anything race, sex, creed, orientation, religion, etc.) who are currently harmed by our rights structure, whether or not that disenfranchisement is largely acknowledged. The horror and the beauty of District 9 is that beneath the science fiction action flick is a very simple message that rights are fragile and complex things and that they aren’t bound to a single species or race.