District 9

March 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

(Caution: minor spoilers ahead.)

2009 saw the science fiction film make a triumphant return to the public spotlight with the critically acclaimed releases of Star Trek (Abrams, 2009), District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009) and Avatar (Cameron, 2009). Star Trek and Avatar reveled in stunning special effects and wove larger than life intergalactic plots. They dazzled and entertained like the science fiction films of old, creating vast new worlds for our imaginations to explore. We left the theater full of wonder and awe after being immersed in a world that was wholly other. But when the shiny veneer of the computer-created beauty fades away, the only thing left for the films to stand upon are their stories and what they say.

Of the two, Star Trek’s story was far more entertaining than Avatar’s, but still rather shallow. District 9, however, is a harrowing tale of segregation and the implications of corporate power and greed. Wait, doesn’t the plot of Avatar concern itself with these things as well? Yes, but it does it through a heavy-handed, highly politicized script that concerns itself more with advancing a pantheistic agenda than actually letting the narrative live and breathe realistically. District 9 on the other hand, in numerous ways, strives to make its world as real as possible and it helps the movie make a more convincing statement and tell a better story.

District 9 immediately roots itself in the world we know and inhabit. Set in Johannesburg, South Africa the film operates within the framework of a documentary, immediately lending validity to its tale. It centers on a fenced-in slum, District 9, wherein aliens (Prawns) are segregated from the populous of Johannesburg. This segregation occurred due to a growing hatred and ignorance of the Prawn culture. Wikus van de Merme (Sharlto Copley) is called upon by his corporation MNU (Multi-National United) to evict the Prawns from downtown Johannesburg to a new site outside of the city.

We follow Wikus as he begins to evict Prawns, occasionally through violence, but mainly through preying on their ignorance of the evictions laws. In one particularly disturbing scene, Wikus orders a shack with Prawn eggs to be torched by a flamethrower. As the fire engulfs the shanty we hear the screams of the eggs as they are incinerated and the laughter of Wikus and the other humans around him. In fact, as we learn later, the only reason the Prawns haven’t been slaughtered is that MNU still needs to run experiments on them in order to figure out how to work their advanced weaponry.

Wikus finds a silver cylinder and while examining it sprays himself with a black fluid. All appears well for a little while, until he begins to vomit blood and lose fingernails. When he goes to the hospital to get checked out, they cut off a cast on his arm and find a Prawn hand. Wikus has been infected and is turning into a Prawn. Because of this he can work their weapons and is suddenly a valuable commodity to MNU, who wants to harvest his DNA to be able to equip others with the ability to operate Prawn weaponry. There’s one catch; they have to kill him to harvest him.

This sets up the rest of the film, as Wikus becomes a fugitive from MNU, stuck between the humans and Prawns, fitting in with neither. With this in place the film begins to delve into the deeper issues racism and exploitation. There are a few specific examples that flesh this out a little bit more.

I’ve already mentioned the torching of the Prawn eggs early on in the film as a prime example of the injustice being done to the Prawns. At this point in time Wikus is laughing as the Prawn eggs wail and scream. Later in the film, there is a distinct turning point as infected Wikus is being forced to operate Prawn weaponry. He has been shooting dead pigs, but for one final test a living Prawn is put in front of him, and he is forced to shoot the Prawn, who explodes into a gory mess. At this point Wikus breaks into tears and perhaps he finally understands the evil being done to the Prawns by his own corporation.

But why all this persecution? The only reason the Prawns are being persecuted is because they have high tech weapons which mankind wants to use. These weapons are very powerful and whoever controls them will have power. This is the real reason why MNU is trying to evict the Prawns from downtown Johannesburg. It has nothing to do with helping them; it’s all about finding their technology and figuring out a way to use it. It’s yet another example in the long history of film that attempts to uncover the corruption that drives so many “humanitarian” efforts.

The racism in District 9 isn’t just human to Prawn discrimination, but there is also a very real sense of racism between the largely white/upper class workers of MNU and the Nigerians who live in District 9 and use the Prawn’s ignorance against them to procure their weapons for themselves. The Nigerians are the antithesis of the MNU workers; they believe in the supernatural and think that if they eat Prawn flesh they will eventually be able to operate the weapons.

The real struggle here is not a struggle for equality, but a struggle for power. The Nigerians don’t want to be equal, they want to rule. The Prawns just want to live without being exploited like they have been for the past 20 years. In the current system this is impossible, and the Prawns continue to be exploited, predominantly by the Nigerians, who sell them basic necessities of life and cat food (which is like a narcotic to the Prawns) at extravagant costs. There’s the free market at its worst.

There are echoes of this in our own society. Often, large corporations oppress smaller people groups in order to keep the status quo.  They hold basic necessities of life back until they get people to give them what they want. They force people to live in awful conditions and work awful jobs because it keeps their bank accounts full. Avatar seems to hint at this too, but it doesn’t really put us in the place of an oppressed people. The Na’vi are only oppressed for a short time and then Nature comes to their rescue. Everything works out fine in the end. In District 9, things aren’t so simple, and by showing us the oppression of an alien species, maybe it can make us re-evaluate how we treat our own species.

So, if you choose to watch one of these three science fiction films and want something that will stick with you after the credits roll, pick District 9.

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