17 August 2009

District 9

District 9 gave me qualms. And then my qualms got qualms. So now I'm all qualmed up.

Because more than being a well-made action movie, more than being a sometimes clever and often allusive sci-fi summer blockbuster, District 9 is also a South African movie about aliens, a movie with more than a hint of metaphorical intent. Andrew O'Hehir's piece about the film and its director, Neill Blomkamp, is even titled, "Is apartheid acceptable -- for giant bugs?"

My first set of qualms began when I tried to view the movie within the context of South Africa's apartheid history, but it didn't work. The premise isn't about a native ethnic majority that is segregated and oppressed by an ethnic minority of more recent arrival. The premise is about refugees -- and, this being a sci-fi movie, the non-native aliens are really non-native and really aliens.

Thus, the District 9 of the title is a slum full of refugees (obviously, there are some echoes of District 6, but again the apartheid connection is problematic). In the O'Hehir piece, there is this exchange:

[Q:] There's a very dark comic side to this story, in which blacks and whites come together to treat another group worse than blacks were ever treated under apartheid.

[Blomkamp:] I was pretty aware of that. I thought that was a pretty funny concept. Another part of recent South African history that isn't world news is that the collapse of Zimbabwe has introduced millions of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants into South African cities. So you have impoverished South African blacks, hoping for a better life in their own country, faced with an influx of millions of impoverished Zimbabweans who have come to South Africa to build a new life for their families. Now you have this powder-keg situation, with black against black, which is highly bizarre.

When we started filming the movie, we had this terrible situation where we woke up one morning to find out that Johannesburg was eating itself alive. Impoverished South Africans had started murdering impoverished Zimbabweans, necklacing them and burning them and chopping them up. That's a very serious piece of contemporary South African society that also finds its way into the film: some impoverished citizens wanting other impoverished citizens out.

Blomkamp's choices of words here are odd -- blacks and whites together oppressing aliens who look like giant insects is a "pretty funny concept" (hey, let's end racial strife -- give us an enemy we can all agree is repulsive! It'll be a laugh riot!) and violence between people who come from different places and are impoverished is "highly bizarre" (only if you think "black people" is a monolithic category -- violence between people who have been systematically forced to scrounge for a living amidst awful conditions is, alas, historically the opposite of bizarre, and the forces that encourage and benefit from it can generally be pretty well defined and analyzed). The important point, though, is the connection to the politics and sociology of refugee situations rather than, primarily, to apartheid.

It's possible to see District 9 as a purely science fictional story: What if aliens landed in Johannesburg and weren't able to leave? Blomkamp said that's, in fact, where he began--
I wanted to see science fiction in that city. I mean, I lived there, and you don't come across cities like that much, especially not in the First World. They don't exist.

So that was the primary reason for making "District 9." No allegories, no metaphors, nothing. Just science fiction in Joburg.
The problem is that there is no such thing as "just science fiction" when the story includes such resonant imagery as that of slums -- in a media environment where images of slums are, for many audiences, racialized and politicized, creating a story about aliens in slums will explode with meanings beyond the immediate narrative.

What we have in District 9 is a story about beings who are (according to the information we are given) monomorphic, monocultural, monolinguistic, physically repulsive to most humans, grotesque in their habits, barbaric in their behaviors, and mostly quite stupid.

In other words, every xenophobe's and racist's worst caricature of a refugee or immigrant.

It could be that this is part of the point. The humans who have jurisdiction over the aliens are shown to be mostly violent, scheming, greedy, ruthless, and contemptible. They are, themselves, mostly quite stupid and barbaric in their behaviors. They are not, though, grotesque in their habits, physically repulsive to most other humans, monolinguistic, monocultural, or monomorphic. (Or at least not so to us, a human audience.)

I had qualms about this, but as I thought about them, my qualms got qualms. At first, I was thinking about the excellent post by Mely from last year concerning metaphorical/allegorical uses of race -- uses which horrendously simplify the idea of race in a biologically deterministic way and which have the unfortunate effect of positing that people who are not members of whatever hegemony is in question are, actually, just like a different species. Mely wrote: "As in nonmetaphorical racial stereotyping, whiteness is treated as the human default and differences from whiteness are treated as aberrations, flaws, signs of violence, inhumanity, lack of control, and threateningness."

That, though, is not what's going on in District 9, exactly, though I was tempted for a few moments to believe it was. The key thing to consider is how the film manipulates our sympathies.

It's an action movie, remember. We need at least one good guy to sympathize with and care about so that we can ignore any concerns about enjoying the ghastly havoc any such film is rich with. How such a film creates and sustains sympathy for a character or group of characters and creates and sustains antipathy for other characters is vitally important.

In the first ten or twenty minutes of District 9, it's hard to figure out where our sympathies belong. The humans are doing things that remind of us Stuff We Know Is Wrong, but the aliens are really gross. We might even begin to wonder if, heck, maybe what the humans are doing isn't even totally unjustified...

Soon enough, we realize that the nebbish and not-very-self-aware Wikus van der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) is our hero. It's nearly impossible to sympathize with him at first -- he's pathetic.

[Pause to let folks who haven't seen the film know that I'm now going to reveal some of the major plot elements.]

But then comes the black fluid. (Yes, black.) It causes Wikus to turn into one of Them and forces him to fight against nearly every human in the film.

The more humans Wikus kills, the more we root for him.

Our sympathies are also manipulated through the character of Christopher Johnson and his son (and I love that the humans are so uninterested in trying to pronounce the aliens' names that they just use ordinary English ones for them -- it's worth noting that for most of an American or British audience, at least, a name like Wikus van der Merwe is more alien-sounding than Christopher Johnson). At first, they are repulsive and threatening and very alien -- Wikus makes the mistake of thinking the son is cute and ends up getting a tin can thrown at his head -- but soon enough they seem as cuddly as E.T.

The film then becomes a buddy picture -- the human/alien hybrid Wikus teamed with the aliens Christopher and his son against every human they encounter.

We move from a reluctant sympathy with unsympathetic humans who, at least, are human ... to a sympathy with a man who is becoming ever more alien and his alien companions. We root for them to succeed in returning to the ship and in getting it operational so they can get the hell away from this crazy, threatening planet -- our planet. When a gang of aliens show up toward the end of the film to fight against the corporate soldiers, we root for the aliens. We laugh and cheer when the soldiers are bloodily obliterated with the aliens' awesome weapons.

Creatures that had seemed stupid and barbaric now seem more complex than we gave them credit for being. We don't know everything about them -- we know, in fact, hardly anything at all -- but we do know that we underestimated them, and that what we took for understanding was anything but.

The final image is, in such a reading, haunting and powerful -- it represents the full journey of our sympathies and the ache within sentient beings for connection.

What was previously alien is now a source of comfort and safety; what was comforting and safe is now threatening and alien.

Being a man of qualms, I still have a few. The Nigerian gang in the slum is the biggest source of qualms for me -- Blomkamp justifies them by saying that Nigerian gangs in Johannesburg are at the center of much of the drug and prostitution traffic, but that ignores the issue here, which is not that there are no gangs of violent black people doing awful stuff in reality, but that images of such people in pieces of mass entertainment deserve a lot of careful thought. When pictures of Barack Obama as a "witch doctor" are circulated by anti-health care reform activists, it may not be the greatest thing in the world for a popular movie to have scenes focused on stereotypically savage black guys who are specifically said to be believers in muti and who think that eating parts of the aliens will give them power. Maybe it would be good to, you know, think about such representations a little bit more before employing them....

On the whole, though, my qualms have settled into admiration of District 9, at least for today.


  1. 'stereotypically savage black guys'

    Except that if you live in J'burg, you have to cope with the reality, not a stereotype. That isn't ignoring the issue, at least not in South Africa.

  2. But then, most movies [that try and say something] end up manipulating our sympathies.

    I already wanted to see the movie, but reading your review has increased that desire tenfold. :)

    I just wish more people would use that kind of intuition you reviewed District 9 with for things like American sitcoms and their ilk.

  3. I'll say this--the movie was definitely a mindphuck. And I'm not sure it was good mindphuck or a bad one. Maybe that was the point, maybe it wasn't. I flip flop from moment to moment.

  4. Too many logic problems, and I think your first reading is the true one. Also, it's not that the aliens have hidden capabilities, it's that the movie is *stupid*. They have all of these weapons they never use, even when being oppressed. The engineer guy spends ten years collecting The Fluid...from alien technology that, erm, presumably CAME FROM THE SHIP. So...why didn't he just freakin' COLLECT IT FROM THE SHIP BEFORE THEY HAD TO PULL UP SHORT AT EARTH?

    How'd stupid anti-hero get back into the military labs? Security's so stupid they didn't change the codes? And why would he know the codes to the SECRET LABS HE WAS TORTURED IN anyway?! Hmmm? And how do they really escape and GET BACK INTO District 9 now that it's surrounded by military personnel.

    Among other stupidities. None of which were necessary.

    And the Nigerian thing was awful. I mean, again, like you said--so what if there are Nigerian gangs out there. I didn't care what ethnic/racial group they came from--I just didn't want them to act like idiots. BECAUSE THAT ISN'T INTERESTING.

    Actually not all that worked up, except I think the movie's vastly overrated.

    And what's ET doing as the alien engineer's sidekick...oh, sorry, his son.


  5. Yes, I agree that movies -- just about all movies -- just about all narrative -- manipulates the audience's sympathies in some ways. I'm not condemning that; I'm just trying to analyze how that manipulation is used in this particular film, which is, for me, its most redeeming quality.

    And I'm with you, Craig -- I really can't make up my mind on the film. I mean, I agree with everything Jeff says about the problems of logic, but given the fairly low expectations I had for it (summer sci-fi blockbuster), I was surprised it made any sense at all. I tend not to be very bothered by plot holes, though, if my attention gets captured by other things; this is a flaw in me, not a virtue in a story.

  6. The Nigerian bit was what troubled me the most too about the film. They were represented little better than the howling mobs in Blackhawk Down - why hasn't anyone noticed how damn WRONG that movie is?
    But then I wonder: People DO believe in muti. Voodoo is a real religious practice. Catholics Do (not metaphorically) eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. And we should not down play that. Its belief and action, its contextually as real as anything else.
    So, I guess what I am wondering, is that maybe its not so much the portayal of the Nigerian gangs, but the fact that we, as a culture, have so demonized there practices that we are inherently repulsed by them. Sure, the film may glory in our preconceptions, but I think it might reflect more poorly back on us.

  7. The Nigerians are portrayed as they are (IMO, of course) in order to bring MNU's own biological research programme into relief. They're both, at the root, an attempt to take the essence of the aliens into their own bodies in order to gain the aliens' power; it's just that some members of the audience need a less-subtle clubbing upside the head with this point in order to drive home how barbaric MNU's programme is.

    Besides, if the "prawns" were that noxious to human sensibilities then it'd take some strong motivations to make living in District 9 a tolerable option; so maybe a voodoo-esque cult would be more likely to be the gunrunners than other criminal organisations. That said, I did have some qualms about the portrayal.

    -- Steve

  8. Hi there, found your blog through the kerfuffle about Tin House and I'm glad I did. I really think this is an interesting reaction to District 9--I thought the premise was, generally, reminiscent (stolen?) from Ken Johnson's Alien Nation series; the licensed novel series began with a flashback novel about the Newcomer's arrival and tenure in a refugee camp. However, whereas in Alien Nation the aliens were whitewashed for television consumption--humans with spotty heads--I liked here that the aliens seemed truly alien.

    What I didn't like was that they were all idiots except the ones we were meant to cheer for.

    I've read some interviews with the filmmaker where he claims that the prawns were meant to be a hive mind, that the "queen" was killed, that perhaps Christopher Johnson was the new queen developing in his/her/its place. Nevermind that this reflects a poor, Star Trek-eque understanding of a hive mind. It doesn't make any sense in terms of the movie, or in terms of an alien space craft. Why would the command module be so small? Why would there only be one intelligent "queen"? Why would they want a population of totally idiotic workers on an interstellar journey?

    (And I understand how being stuck on a space craft for three months and malnourished could create seeming-idiocy in the refugees initially, but not after 20 years.)

    So really, the fact that the aliens looked gross and ate cat food didn't bother me that much. Aliens would look different. Who knows what they would eat. Chances are, they wouldn't be a monoculture of violent idiots, though--our feelings of initial repulsion at the aliens could have been challenged, rather than confirmed.

  9. In the first ten or twenty minutes of District 9, it's hard to figure out where our sympathies belong. The humans are doing things that remind of us Stuff We Know Is Wrong, but the aliens are really gross. We might even begin to wonder if, heck, maybe what the humans are doing isn't even totally unjustified...

    I don't know if I ever felt this reaction, though. The alien "abortion" scene (complete with baby gurgling and crying sounds) was brutal enough that I found it very, very difficult to muster any sympathy for Wikus through most of the movie.

  10. I enjoyed the movie, despite its logical problems, for me the most problematic being Wilkus' transformation. But, I accept it as metaphor.

    Interesting about the manipulation of our sympathies...as we start to see Wilkus work with Christopher Johnson and we root for him to help the alien and his son flee, Wilkus betrays Christopher for his own selfish ends, almost bringing ruin to everything. That Wilkus, in the end, does come to the alien's aid is gratifying, but that it is so belated also shows how hard it is for any of us to sacrifice our desires to help others whom we have the capacity to help.

    Definitely a provocative movie.

  11. Hi, I'm East Indian myself, and I think that people shouldn't puke all over the director for following his own vision. I think he did a great job.

    Hey, the point was that blacks and whites behaved badly, and there were negative depictions of both. Why let one group get off scotfree, and only show the other in the negative light? That's ridiculous pandering, and the whites had more than enough badguys as it was.

    What I enjoyed was the fact that the hero, who himself had so many flaws from the start, went through a major transformation that made you root for him in the end. The fact that he was more mouse than manly made his stand look all the more courageous in the end.

    He was like Inspector Clouseau going on a berserk rampage in the end. Even when he was blitzing the badguys, he was still faltering and stumbling like the natural klutz he was.

    He was a fresh kind of anti-hero, and not the extra-tough too-bad-to-be-good macho type. The final scene with him making flowers for his long lost wife was extremely poignant.

    I liked the movie a lot, and can't wait for the sequel.

  12. For the poster having issues with the logic problems behind the aliens, you should read this:


    Towards the end of the article, the director explains why the aliens behaved the way they did.

  13. Finally some real reviews. I think the critics on rottentomatoes have completely lost their freaking minds
    It's definitely changed and I now know it's not a legit source.

    Just saw this movie last night. To be honest I'm a little taken back by all the big praise it's getting from well known critics.
    I think the best description I've heard was that the film was more of a space opera rather than a deep thought provoking science fiction film. Her are a few things I'm slightly confused about , but the inconsistencies are endless. Science fiction needs rules that's why it's not a science fiction movie - it's fantasy. 1. why is an alien named Christopher Johnson. 2. The black liquid spray changes the main character's DNA also it provides fuel for the space ship? 3. The Dialogue was a bit hoaky at times especially with the aliens. 4. Aliens have all these awesome weapons why don't they start using them? 5. The aliens are really strong and let people spank them around. 6. Why would humans disrespect aliens with far superior technology 4. Stop making aliens with horse legs and little Tyrannosaurus pincer arms. Star Wars, War of the Worlds, just to name a few. 5. The main character flip flops on his empathy towards the aliens, takes a flame thrower to a whole house full of alien eggs. Suddenly feels empathetic and can't pull the trigger when comes time to execute one. 5.Ok I get it South africa + discrimination = apartheid. It's not that brilliant of an equation and certainly doesn't deserve the right to be called a brilliant social commentary. It was unnecessarily grotesque at times and I think it actually painted a more disturbing picture of Nigerians.
    Eating the Aliens? prostitution with Aliens? What the f---


  14. I definitely don’t blame you for having misgivings and qualms about the imagery and the social content in District 9. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and do so to this day. I think it’s one of the best movies ever made considering it was done on such a small budget. I think where the movie really triumphs is the fact that you’re not SUPPOSED to root for the hero until the very end. Even when you think they have a solution, he turns right around and betrays Christopher Johnson out of desperation and frustration. He’s a very HUMAN protagonist. Is he a hero? Not all the time. I think a lot of people would have reacted the same way he did to the things he saw and experienced from start to finish.