Though Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 evokes many of the classical elements of science fiction films, the movie that kept coming back to me as I sat through the disturbingly realistic pic was Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man. That 1970 film, which depicts a white racist waking up one day as a black man, hides a poignant and timely message beneath the glimmering facade of a Hollywood comedy. In much the same way, Mr. Blomkamp relies on familiar sci-fi conventions to get to his many-layered message: if we are not alone in the universe, do we deserve to know who shares it with us?
In an age when digital wizardry has opened up the floodgates to science- fiction pics of all shapes and sizes, the genre seems to have become reliant on the overall wow-factor, each film attempting to out-do the other in terms of creature screentime. I remember a time when films would advertise how many minutes more of digital special effects they had than Jurassic Park. (Brad Silberling’s 1995 Casper, as in the friendly ghost, was particularly fond of this statistic.) The main casualty of this shift has been the presence of a theme and a message. Enter District 9.
Multi-National United (MNU) is a ubiquitous corporation charged with managing the transfer of an alien race known as “prawns” from the makeshift “district 9” to the better controlled area known as “district 10”. Having landed for no known reason two decades ago over Johannesburg, the prawns have become one of the most marginalized group of refugees on the planet. MNU appears to be taking on the impossible by dealing with the safe passage of the prawns, but as you may have guessed, their intentions aren’t quite so pure. They are aliens and they have huge freaking weapons which are linked to their DNA, only a prawn can fire them. For twenty years, MNU has been trying to get a human to fire one of these things. Their opportunity comes when Wikus Van De Merwe, a high-level grunt at MNU, accidentally sprays space-goop in his face and grows a prawn arm.
Wikus is a decidedly interesting character. He is a pencil pushing kook who steals our hearts even when he is at his most fascist. His wide-eyed explanations of prawn “population control”, in which a house full of fifty eggs is torched while babies scream and pop, is absolutely endearing. With a lump in your throat, there will still probably be a smile on your face. Just like Jeff Gerber in Watermelon Man, before the accident he is a racist on the extreme end of the spectrum, yet he displays such lively humanity that we can only shake our heads in disappointment. The proper reaction should be to grab a tire-iron and beat the shit out of him.
As his prawnification accelerates, MNU opts to vivisect Wikus in the name of science, but he escapes to district 9 and meets one of the smarter prawns who promises a way to turn him human again. Begin chase film. Stuff blows up and stories get resolved; it’d be better if you just saw the movie than to explain it all. In the end, you will probably have a bad tasted in your mouth. What is so disturbing about District 9 is that it is highly conceivable that everything that occurs in the film would transpire given the opportunity. How do we know? Because we have been doing this to our own kind for thousands of years.
Johannesburg is the setting for the film, and I don’t care how many times Mr. Blomkamp says this film isn’t about apartheid, it is. If they landed over Portland, Oregon the narrative would be completely different. While District 9 is a story about human shortcomings, not specifically South African, the time and place of the film are decidedly significant. For one, the alien race landed while apartheid was still an issue, perhaps their presence brought both sides together against them. For most of the world, there is a question as to what apartheid actually is. In essence, it is the marginalization and dehumanization of an entire race of people. It goes a great deal deeper than acts of violence or forcing someone to the back of a bus (not to minimize American civil rights by any means). It is racism as policy, as a matter of popular belief that seeps into every corner of society. We learn with Wikus how deep that marginalization goes; if you don’t know what that looks like, then perhaps District 9 is worth a look. Stuff blows up a bunch and there’s a ton of alien goop, so you won’t have to spend too much time learning.