August 14th may feel to most of us like the absolute height of summer heat, but by Hollywood’s calendar, the season is practically over by now. The date is poised precariously between blockbuster season and the no-man’s-land that precedes winter’s procession of Oscar hopefuls. It is no accident that Sony TriStar has chosen this weekend to release District 9, a Peter Jackson-produced South African sci-fi parable with a take on social tension that is uncommonly thoughtful for a film with such blistering action and special effects. With District 9, first-time director Neill Blomkamp manages to create mainstream science fiction packed with allegorical ferocity.
Allow me a brief film-student digression before I get into District 9 itself. In a pretty seminal 1996 article, Susan Sontag describes a standard plot of science fiction movies in which aliens or other monsters appear, to the initial notice of only a few, and then cause some massive public destruction that mandates swift, brutal, and righteous retaliation. While her essay focuses on Cold War-era sci-fi, a more recent film in this mold is Independence Day, which came out the same year as Sontag's essay. Just as films of the 1950s and '60s fueled anti-Communist panic, Roland Emmerich’s so-badass-we-didn’t-realize-how-conservative-it-was-when-we-were-kids epic practically begged for the charismatic militarism of the George W. Bush administration.
With District 9, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell turn this model upside down. The aliens, it turns out, are peaceful refugees with a broken spaceship. For 28 years, they are abused by the human population of Johannesburg — confined to a ghetto (the titular District 9), derisively nicknamed “Prawns” for their shrimp-like appearance, and subjected to inhumane treatment by the Multi-National United corporation charged with policing the aliens’ slum. As government officials attempt to “evict” the aliens and move them into a new concentration camp-like compound 200 km outside of the city, an alien father and son enact a plan to repair the broken mothership and return to their home world for aid.
Blomkamp takes great pains to humanize his alien characters, leaving the audience no choice but to empathize with their plight. The film departs from its mockumentary formal conceits to flesh out the relationship between the alien father (dryly named Christopher Johnson) and his son. While sometimes cloying for the alien reaction shots and facial expressions used to emphasize common values, the tactic gets the job done. The human-alien identification is further enacted physically upon the body of the film’s human protagonist, MNU official Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), after contact with the aliens’ fuel begins to transform him into one of them. Originally a faithful bureaucrat charged with carrying out evictions, Wikus soon finds himself pursued by the military branch of MNU for his newfound ability to operate the aliens’ biotechnology. (Yes, a certain amount of sci-fi suspension of disbelief is required here. Obviously.) As it becomes increasingly clear that his former associates view him more as an object than a human being, Wikus’ crass paternalism towards the aliens fades just as visibly as the grotesque mutations on his person appear.
With its South African roots and setting, District 9 obviously evokes the legacy of apartheid. Yet it would be a mistake to attempt to draw a direct correlation between the film’s events and the troubled history of Blomkamp’s homeland, especially given that we’re talking about a work of 2009 and not 1989. District 9’s aliens are a more essential kind of Other, and the allegory a more general one of racial intolerance and marginalization. With the dystopia depicted here, Blomkamp and Tatchell have crafted a humanist warning that avoids getting bogged down in the minutiae of specific history. Indeed, some of the film’s deepest reverberations are not with South African politics, but rather with the hazy future of a United States increasingly antagonistic to its own migrant and minority populations. As an American viewer, it is difficult to see this film without being struck by an apocalyptic vision of Lou Dobbs’ America.
Paradoxically, my biggest problem with this race-relations allegory is of its treatment of human racial minorities. A running subplot throughout the film concerns a band of Nigerian criminals who set up shop within District 9, scamming the aliens out of their money and weaponry. Aside from several black MNU officials, these outlaws are the primary ethnically African characters in the film, and they are rendered as not only cruel and untrustworthy, but also backwards and superstitious. It is difficult to tell how Blomkamp and Tatchell intended these characters to function; perhaps they are simply an ideologically unfortunate mechanism for generating just a few more explosive action sequences. Their presence nearly undermines the film’s ability to tackle the ethical and moral issues involved with the governance of diverse populations.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” states a famous axiom of a particular web-slinging blockbuster of summers past. Many people are going to see District 9, and its depiction of the Nigerians must be understood for what it is: unnecessary, vulgar, insulting. Yet there is too much good in Blomkamp and Jackson’s film to let this unfortunate aspect ruin it for us. District 9 is, for the most part, a case study in what the genre of science fiction does best — explain conflicts in our world that are difficult to discuss through depiction of another world entirely. That its creators have done so in an expertly paced action blockbuster with visual effects slick enough to make one wonder what Michael Bay did with the other $170 million of his Transformers budget is absolutely remarkable.