District 9: Through A Dark Glass, Neill Blomkamp Mirrors Humanity

District 9 begins with an alien spacecraft looming in the skies over Johannesburg, South Africa. Inside, rather than invaders, are planetary orphans, terrified and starving. Though they do have weapons, they are not used, whether because they are intimidated by the world they have found, or because of their weakened condition, is not addressed. This 20-year alien history is told, at the beginning, in TV interviews and TV camera angles — what is now known as a mockudrama.

At first, world governments have high hopes for some break-out new technology. So with good intentions the creatures are transferred to terra firma, where they are given their own section of land.  But the hoped-for technology never materializes. And as difficulties and complications mount, people begin to fear the aliens (who could barely take care of themselves in this — to them — alien environment). District 9 is turned into a refugee camp with the aliens just another round of victims that can be easily exploited. Earth history is rife with them.

As people are wont to do with problems they are unprepared to handle, they simply try their best to make them go away. A company is hired called Multi-National United (MNU) to take care of their problem. The head of the company, Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar) hires his son-in-law, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to oversee the operation of alien relocation. I gathered that Wikus was hired because of his lack of skills and timidity. In other words, sadly unemployable. Daddy-in-law was desperate and took advantage of the opportunity.

Wikus goes on to be the poster boy for petty bureaucracy. Backed by armed forces, and lacking any kind of moral fiber, he vacillates between wanting to be the good guy and doing a good job, and being pulled into the riotous vortex of the brutal WNU enforcers. Wikus moves from trying the soft glove treatment to heinous acts of his own.

When Wikus is accidentally sprayed by a substance prepared in secret by a highly intelligent alien with the name Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), he finds he has been contaminated and is slowly turning into the very thing he despises. His forearm turns into a claw. As he screams in horror when doctors reveal the arm, he then finds he has become the subject of experimentation, since only the DNA of the aliens can fire the weapons collected from the ship. His wife, Tania (Vanessa Haywood), worriedly sitting in the waiting room, hears his screams as they take him away, but allows herself to be diverted by her father.

With strength born of mortal terror, Wikus escapes and becomes the most hunted man in the world. Joining forces with Christopher, they pool their resources to get Wikus whole again, and Christopher and his little alien son back into a working spacecraft and into the void.

The aliens, nicknamed “prawns” in District 9, are determinedly uncuddly and disgusting. They are reminiscent of 1986’s “Predator”, though a little leaner and not quite as ferocious. But both are hugely ugly. Which makes it that much more of a surprise when you find tears in your eyes. What began as an obvious metaphor for persecution and inhumanity, got kicked downstairs from your head to your heart.

Somewhere in the 20 year hiatus between first contact and the present, humans and their unwelcome guests learn enough of each other’s language to communicate (with subtitles for those of us who don’t speak extraterrestrial). The clicks that permeated the alien language reminded me of another South African movie from 1980, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. The language of the native Nambian, San N!xau, featured such odd clicks. It was a wonderfully fascinating movie.

Wikus’s nightmare of being totally alone in unimaginable horror, was brought brilliantly into play. The sound of his frantic pecking on his cell phone to contact wife and friends seemed to add emphasis to his alienation. Running and crawling and hiding through incredible squalor and danger, his body evolving, sick and hurt in body and spirit, Wikus’s dilemma dramatically absorbs the viewer and bonds him to the character. Wikus’s relationship with his wife, Tania, who, like him, is timid and uncertain, grabs a piece of this film even though it is only periodically and briefly touched upon. In their few contacts, both fearful and pathetic, it is obvious that husband and wife love each other.

The fact that Wikus can grow in this savage world that has become as alien to him as the remotest planet, and that in his alienation he has found some of his humanity, makes this dark film resound with hope

District 9 is not ET. That being said to warn off family viewers, I very much appreciate the high recommendations from several of my readers. If left to  my own devices, District 9 is not a movie I would have watched. Thank you, readers. I would have missed out on a very unusual, hard-hitting, and overall well-crafted movie. (Though they could have left out about 10,000 of the four-letter words and still have had plenty left over to be gritty).

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4 thoughts on “District 9: Through A Dark Glass, Neill Blomkamp Mirrors Humanity

  1. Hee! I thought you’d like it. I love getting recommendations from friends. They’re usually good guides. I felt so sorry for the Prawns, ugly as they were. I couldnt help it.

    I love “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” It never ceases to amaze me that it was San N!xau’s first movie. He had never even seen a movie when that film was made. And how wonderful that Barkhad Abdi from “Captain Phillips” just won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor. It was his first film, too. I adore Jennifer Larence, but I hoped Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) would win for Best Supporting Actress. I’ll bet she wins the Oscar.

  2. I hated this movie. It is so ham-fisted in showing us “Racism is wrong” that it was unwatchable. It’s like a bunch of people sat around in a room with a need to make a message movie and tossed out ideas until one stuck. “How about aliens who actually are exactly like us, except for some bug that makes them ugly? Wait, let’s put it in post-apartheid South Africa and show the Africans being racist too! Oh, and toss in an evil corporation for an extra bonus.”

    A message in a movie is usually a good thing, but this is so relentless with it’s dual messages about racism and the evils of capitalism that I turned it off. On the other hand, another sci-fi message movie with both of those messages, Avatar, was enjoyable despite the rhetoric.

    • Yes, the message was obvious. However, it’s the way it was presented (minus the 10,000 four-letter words), that, to me, made it work. Sharlto Copley makes his character memorable in all the shifting, moment by moment interplay of circumstances and emotions. The not-so-subtle metaphor of aliens representing all the ills of society probably worked, for me, because they represented the underdogs of society in a myriad of ways, not just those who make the news.

      Of course, everyone can see their own version of the underdog. Mine is the poor, and I feel like they are are becoming the aliens of our society, in spite of many good people trying to change things. It is unbelievable the horrors I’ve seen, and fear the diminishing of the middle class. I have a wealthy friend whom I’ve known all my life who is clueless about the circumstances of people just trying to hold on to the status quo. Okay, I’m getting off the subject. I really never wanted to see the movie. It just was not my cup of tea. But the flashes of character, not drawn out and sappy, but briefly searing and hard-hitting, kept me glued to the screen. I never expected to like it for many of the reasons you gave, but there was a quality about it that transcended just a message in a bottle. I like surprises like that. And I also liked Avatar, but for different reasons.

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