New indie flick District 9 is about bureaucrats trying to evict 1.5 million stranded, buglike aliens from a vast slum outside Johannesburg, South Africa. What happens when slum life gets turned into a CGI actionfest? Something that's almost revolutionary.
This essay will contain spoilers. I have already said that I think District 9 is one of the best science fiction movies of the year, and indeed maybe one of the best SF movies of all time. You can read my spoiler-free review of it here. In this post, I'm going to analyze the movie critically, not because the film is bad but because it's so rich that it deserves critical engagement.
Wikus is a recently-promoted bureaucrat with Multinational United, or MNU, a company whose tentacles seem to stretch into all aspects of the paramilitary industry, from armed interventions to weapons development. His new job is to evict every single alien from the Johannesburg slum, and relocate them to what he later describes as "a concentration camp" about 50 kilometers away from the city. As District 9 opens, a series of interviews and news clips hint that something has gone terribly wrong with Wilkus' operation.
Director Niell Blomkamp uses a pseudo-documentary style for the film, which has the effect of immediately plunging us into the media and pundit culture of his alternate reality. In this version of Earth, aliens have occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder in South Africa for the past 20 years. A sociologist explains how they simply showed up one day in an enormous generation ship, which hung in the air for weeks until UN troops cut into the hull and discovered the mysteriously wasted, diseased remnants of a shipboard city.
Eventually the aliens are relocated to living quarters outside Johannesburg, which quickly devolves into a slum. As another commentator explains, the aliens seem uninterested in work and spend all their time obsessively eating catfood and rubber tires. Nigerian gansters move into the slum with them, trading catfood for the alien's superpowerful weapons. And the city of Johannesburg is slowly papered over with "humans only" signs, while the locals take to calling the aliens "prawns."
The film is at its most intriguing when it focuses on Wikus' relationship to the aliens, whom he treats like cattle and refers to openly as prawns. Put into his current position because his father-in-law is an executive at MNU, Wikus is incredibly naïve about the alien relocation project. When the aliens violently resist him, attacking and murdering the people who come into their slums, he's genuinely shocked. And this shock transforms him from an ignorant bigot into a vaguely enlightened jerk.
There is no simplistic moment of enlightenment here, where the white dude suddenly embraces alien culture and learns something about himself. Wikus is selfish and stupid until the end, stumbling into heroic acts rather than authoring them. We get hints that he's not as horrifyingly cruel as his superiors at MNU, but that's not much of a recommendation. He's the kind of guy who approves of concentration camps, but draws the line at senseless torture.
Wikus is drawn into the aliens' world when he accidentally stumbles on an artifact in one of the shanties that he's trying to purge. It turns out he's fallen into an alien mad scientist lab that belongs to the one alien who seems devoted to getting off Earth and back home. Unfortunately Wikus confiscates the energy cell required, and squirts himself with alien fuel goo in the process.
And that's when things get ugly. The goo slowly turns Wikus into an alien, and that means he's the most valuable guy on the planet to MNU. All those alien weapons they've been confiscating can only be operated by the aliens themselves – they're triggered by alien DNA – and Wikus' half-alien body could be the weapon-trigger they've been looking for. The film's air of social satire crumbles into social horror as the MNU scientists force a now-imprisoned Wikus to test weapons for them, on an increasingly disturbing range of targets.
This is in many ways a classic scenario for framing tales of white guilt, where a clueless or possibly even racist white guy realizes people of color are people too. And then he's given a chance to reform and make up for his previous mistakes. District 9 never takes this easy route; even when Wikus realizes that his body is alien, and that the only place he's safe is in the alien ghetto, he never repents for what he's doing to the only home the aliens have on Earth. He's willing to forge an alliance with the alien scientist, but only because he so desperately wants to be human again. Any selfless acts he commits are based on selfishness.
While the portrait of Wikus is nuanced, the film's treatment of the aliens isn't nearly as sharp. Indeed, if there is any flaw in the movie it is the portrayal of the aliens. While there's a satisfying mystery surrounding their arrival, the mystery of their condition isn't so much ambiguous as it is simply confused. If these aliens have such amazing technology and weaponry, why don't they use it to fight back when the humans try to relocate them? We know they've learned to understand English, and it's never satisfactorily explained why they can't integrate themselves into human society. Surely, out of over a million aliens, there must be a few diplomats?
It's possible the aliens have been damaged in some way: We know they were sick and starving when they arrived. But we also know that the alien scientist still has his wits about him and has created an entire lab beneath his shanty. So clearly not all the aliens have lost the capacity for reason, though we see most of them spending all their time fighting and getting high on catfood.
We're left with a kind of bellyflop allegory as a result. District 9's aliens don't represent an oppressed race in South Africa, but instead embody the stereotype of outcast slum-dweller. They seem incapable of integrating themselves into human society due to something intrinsic to their natures, rather than anti-alien feeling among the citizens of Johannesburg.
District 9 doesn't ever need to resolve this issue because it falls back on the rules of the action film, sucking us into a fast-paced second and third act where Wikus runs from the law, uses alien gundam armor to awesome effect, and barely survives a harrowing gunfight in the alien ghetto. Heads explode, people barf extravagantly, and there is a good time to be had for anyone who likes fights and doesn't give a crap about politics. So the high-octane part of District 9 both rescues it from being a treacly message movie, but it also allows Blomkamp to wiggle out of grappling realistically with why certain groups remain ghettoized even when they have talents and technologies that are useful to the society that has cast them out.
Still, there is something deeply pleasing about a movie that manages to be both action-packed and thoughtful. Rarely do we find a film that entertains and provokes, and I don't want to suggest that the explosions get dialed back in favor of Meaningful Dialog about oppression. But as it stands, District 9 generates what you might call CGI politics, a kind of glossy simulation of political engagement. We are given no easy answers, and no cardboard cutout heroes. In the end, the focus of the whole film – the aliens – remain a mere special effect, something cool to look at rather than understand.