We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats and corrupts savage man. … [Men] will do as their kind has always done. What that will be if they meet things weaker than themselves, the black man and the red man can tell. …
I therefore fear the practical, not the theoretical, problems which will arise if we ever meet rational creatures which are not human. Against them we shall, if we can, commit all the crimes we have already committed against creatures certainly human but differing from us in features and pigmentation; and the starry heavens will become an object to which good men can look up only with feelings of intolerable guilt, agonized pity, and burning shame. — C. S. Lewis, “Religion and Rocketry”
C. S. Lewis’s bleak prediction about human mistreatment of extraterrestrial creatures was framed in terms of human spacefarers encountering alien life on distant worlds, but the gist of his thesis is eminently applicable to the scenario proposed in District 9, a caustic and gory but sharply made sci-fi fable with a pungent South African flavor.
District 9 imagines a population of over a million aliens arriving on Earth, neither as conquering invaders nor as ambassadors of peace, but as helpless refugees — manual laborers on some sort of utility vehicle apparently crippled by an outbreak of disease. Perhaps on autopilot, their derelict ship winds up hovering over downtown Johannesburg. Though large and intimidating, the aliens are confused and directionless without their leaders. It may be that they have a hive mind that has broken down, and like lone ants don’t know which way to turn.
Traditional movie-alien roles are dramatic and momentous; this anticlimatic arrival is another story. If they were invaders, we would fight; if they were ambassadors, we might possibly attack them anyway. Because they are merely helpless, we don’t really know what to do about them. The creatures are eventually rounded up into Johannesburg slums which are cordoned off as a refugee camp, dubbed District 9.
That was nearly three decades ago. If the alien arrival was anticlimactic when it occurred, today it is merely a long-term problem to be managed. The alien ghetto is overcrowded and dangerous. Administration of the camp has been subcontracted to a defense contractor called Multi-National United, or MNU. MNU has confiscated much of the aliens’ technology, particularly their weaponry, which the aliens are too directionless to use but which turns out to be unusable to humans because the tech is keyed to the aliens’ DNA.
The aliens are capable of labor and could conceivably be given work, but no effort has been made to do anything but maintain the status quo. The aliens live by scavenging and by selling off whatever technology they have retained, including illegal weapons, on the black market, in large part for cat food, which has a drug-like power over them.
Aliens and humans have at least achieved a level of communication; neither can speak the other’s language (the physiologies are incompatible), but they have learned to understand each other’s words, if not each other’s minds. Whatever the aliens call themselves in their language of clicks and grunts would be unreproducible in English; the Afrikaners have derisively nicknamed them “prawns,” a term that aptly covers the creatures’ blend of crustacean and entomological attributes (real prawns are shrimp-like crustaceans, but Wikipedia informs us that there is also a South African grasshopper called a “Parktown prawn”).
The city’s human residents, black and white, want the prawns out, and there is a plan to relocate the entire camp to another location about 150 miles from Johannesburg. Among the prawns’ few legal rights is a requirement that 24 hour notice of any relocation be given, and one Wikus van der Merwe, a cheerful pencil-pushing dweeb who happens to be married to the daughter of a high-ranking MNU executive, is tapped to coordinate the effort to serve eviction notices to District 9’s nearly two million prawns.
Why is half of this review focused on summarizing the premise? Because District 9, co-written and directed by first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp, establishes its semi-satiric premise with a pseudo-documentary style that imbues it with an air of realism and immediacy, like a real humanitarian crisis unfolding on the other side of the globe. Eventually, like Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, the documentary conceit fades away and genre conventions assert themselves — in this case in a blend of violent action, humor and horror tropes, with riffs on everything from Cameron’s Aliens to Verhoeven’s Robocop to Cronenberg’s The Fly — but the film remains a startlingly fresh and provocative take on well-traveled terrain.
We’ve seen similar human–alien dynamics before, notably in the 1998 film Alien Nation; but Blomkamp — a South African expatriate who was fourteen when apartheid ended and seventeen when his family fled Johannesburg for British Columbia to escape the violence and crime of post-apartheid South Africa — gives his premise a cultural specificity that goes beyond “Star Trek” message-of-the-week territory. While it’s not hard to see the shadow of apartheid lurking behind the premise — the film’s title and the relocation effort evoke the forced removal of over 60,000 black South Africans from Cape Town’s District Six, which was declared a “whites only” zone in 1966 — District 9 is really about a contemporary, post-apartheid South African reality unknown to many Americans whose most recent impression of the country is still Nelson Mandela’s presidency, now a decade in the past.
Gavin Hood’s gripping, squirm-inducing Tsotsi showed us the lawless slums and criminal gangs of Johannesburg’s Soweto neighborhood, but Blomkamp’s equally hard-to-watch, hard-to-look-away film shows us more: enclaves of white privilege beset by corruption and nepotism; Nigerian crime lords who traffic in voodoo fetishism as well as weapons and other black-market goods; a world of xenophobia, oppression and malaise. The plight of the prawns resonates at least as much with the contemporary situation of millions of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa, who fled from political repression and economic collapse but now face mob violence and resentment from South Africans opposed to their presence, as it does with the history of apartheid.
A computer animator and director of short films, Blomkamp previously developed the idea for what became District 9 in a six-minute short, Alive in Joburg (available on YouTube), which similarly blended pseudo-interview and cable-news clips with field footage of armed forces engaging the prawns. With support from producer Peter Jackson, Blomkamp spins the premise into a visceral action thriller — made for a mere $30 million — about a member of the oppressor class, van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who gets an unforgiving crash course in humanity (take that however you like) when a seemingly minor mishap during the eviction-notice op turns out to have devastating consequences.
Star Copley (who had a scene in Alive in Joburg) makes an assured feature debut as van der Merwe, a character who is both likably clueless and alienatingly unprincipled. (More subtext: The name “van der Merwe” represents the stereotyped butt of a genre of South African jokes, much like Polish jokes or blonde jokes, except that van der Merwe jokes target the privileged.) Van der Merwe is bullying without being truly malicious, blithely exploits the aliens’ ignorance — until his team encounters a more knowledgeable prawn who knows his rights and protests that the eviction notice is illegal — and (in a scene with nascent pro-life resonances) chortles at the popcorn sound issuing from a burning hut containing a clutch of prawn eggs.
That scene in a way represents the whole film: There’s popcorn appeal for casual viewers, but something more vital and desperate at stake underneath. District 9 occasionally overplays its hand (the villains’ behavior goes over the top now and then, as in a weapons testing scene in which a live prawn is used as a target for no good reason) but if the film escapes misanthropy in part by indications of principled opposition to the mistreatment of the prawns among concerned humans, for the most part the grim overall picture is all too queasily plausible. Any happy endings are exceptions to the rule, and entrenched social ills aren’t resolved in two hours or less.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.