Produced by Key Creatives and WingNut Films
Directed and written by Neill Blomkamp
Distributed by Sony Pictures
Forty-five years ago, radio humorist Jean Shepherd wondered why filmmakers invariably portrayed alien invaders as intellectually light years ahead of human beings. Wasn’t it possible, he mused, that extraterrestrials might be a tad slow on the uptake, perhaps even slovenly of habit?
At 30, director Neill Blomkamp seems far too young to be familiar with Shepherd, but his first feature film, the alien-invasion opus District 9, nevertheless honors Shepherd’s notion. Blomkamp’s aliens are an entirely hapless lot. They unaccountably park their saucer-shaped ship over Johannesburg, South Africa, a choice that makes no sense at all. Everyone knows alien invasions begin over New York or Washington, D.C., or, when the Alpha Centaurians take a wrong turn, London. It stands to reason that, if you were from somewhere north of the Eagle Nebula, you would have to be a complete dunce to hover over Johannesburg unless, of course, the director telling your story grew up in this city and wanted to put across a glancing allegory about what he had witnessed there as a child before his parents fled to Canada to escape the turmoil and crime that engulfed South Africa during the years before and after the African National Congress gained power in 1994.
Upon their initial arrival in 1982, the aliens had refused to emerge from their vehicle. After three months, an exasperated South African government sent up some reconnaissance helicopters to find out what these reluctant visitors wanted. In a swift montage of simulated television-news commentary intercut with faux newsreel footage, we learn that the ship harbored confused, starving aliens. Taking pity on them, the government moved them into a camp, which quickly became a tin-hut shanty enclave similar to the Soweto District in Johannesburg, notorious for its squalor and petty crime. The aliens are seven-foot tall bipeds encased in exoskeletons, equipped with antennae along with other inscrutably disturbing appendages, capable of leaping fifteen feet off the ground from a standstill, and in possession of ray rifles that instantly splatter their targets into gobs of watery gelatin. Yet, despite these physical and technological advantages, they are so lacking in tactical wherewithal that they have allowed mere humans to keep them corralled in their garbage-strewn district.
Twenty-eight years later, the South African citizenry have long lost their pity and awe for these creatures and now refer to them dismissively as “prawns.” And, it must be said, the prawns have more than earned the contempt heaped on them. They have become addicted to cat food supplied to them by a Nigerian warlord who barters tabby treats for their formidable weapons. Meanwhile, the respectable citizens increasingly complain of the prawns’ disgusting ways. They are inveterate dumpster divers; what’s more, they patronize Nigerian prostitutes who, for the right price, have overcome whatever natural reluctance they might once have had to engage in interspecies sex. Furthermore, the prawns have been known to mug the young, both black and white, for their Nikes—which is odd, since they walk in an ostrich-like toes-up gait quite unknown to Nike’s market researchers.
Here as elsewhere, the needs of Blomkamp’s allegory trump narrative plausibility. Oddities keep cropping up. The alien ship transported what must have been a million prawns, since their numbers have grown to 1.8 million post-arrival, and yet the vehicle is clearly no larger than the new 52,000-seat Yankee Stadium. Of course, there’s standing room to consider, but still.
Despite its inconsistencies, District 9 has become the critical darling of our mainstream press. Why? Well, it seems to align with our politically correct thinking on racism and immigration, issues before which the considerations of simple storytelling must fall by the wayside.
When the script gets down to serious business, it becomes difficult to know whether to laugh or groan. Since the South Africans want the prawns to disappear, the government hires a private contractor, the Halliburton-like Multi-National United (MNU), to relocate them 200 miles outside of Johannesburg, an initiative meant to parallel the infamous forced removal of blacks, coloreds, Asians, Indians, and some doubtful whites from Cape Town’s Sixth Municipal District in 1968 on the grounds that it was a slum and conducive to interracial strife. To manage the fictional eviction, the head of MNU chooses his son-in-law, the stunningly inept Wikus (Sharl-to Copley, giving a weirdly unaffected performance), a natural patsy wholly unsuited to the task. We watch in horrified amusement as he walks through the prawn ghetto, eviction notices in hand. At his side are armed mercenaries and, of course, a team of slavering television commentators hoping to film scenes embarrassing to the government. The journalists are not disappointed. Whenever Wikus meets with alien resistance, however mild, MNU’s thugs step in. Ignoring Wikus’s pleas for moderation, they beat and even kill several of the aliens. Ever the bureaucrat, Wikus tries to put the best face on the proceedings. The prawns don’t understand private property, he hopelessly observes. Discovering a shack harboring dozens of incubating alien eggs, he looks on while the soldiers burn the structure. The eggs make a funny popping sound during their incineration, he needlessly adds by way of supplementing the all-too-gruesome soundtrack. A satire on modern abortion policy, perhaps?
Then the film shifts into a different register. Leaving behind the faux television-news reportage, Blomkamp focuses on Wikus, who slowly emerges as a recognizable individual forced from his bureaucratically scripted role by the necessity to make moral decisions on his own. As a bureaucrat trying to save his job, he had relied on an embarrassed smile and a nervous giggle. This simply won’t do for the horror he’s beholding. Finally, circumstances force him to identify with the aliens. He begins to see them as victims rather than a political nuisance. Furthermore, he discovers that MNU’s real goal is to learn how to use the aliens’ advanced weapons, which will only fire for those having some sort of biological connection to them. Here Wikus becomes vital to MNU’s plans. His growing closeness to the aliens enables him to use these weapons. He’s hustled into a laboratory to shoot some captured prawns. But Wikus flees and joins forces with the one alien smart and individual enough to have questioned his authority earlier. From this point the film continues in a predictable manner, even resorting to shoot-’em-ups in which Wikus gets to use a mechanical suit à la Iron Man to defend himself against MNU’s evil minions.
As narrative, District 9 is an odd reworking of standard sci-fi gimmicks enhanced with flashes of unexpected humor. The aliens’ cat-food addiction is a priceless conceit, and there is the comic aptness of calling these scavenging creatures from space prawns, the ocean’s garbage patrol.
All this is amusing enough, but it’s Blomkamp’s allegory that has the critics abuzz. Most assume the film is a morally serious meditation on the horrors of apartheid, with the aliens standing for South Africa’s majority black populace oppressed by the white minority. At first glance, this would seem an obvious reading of the film. As it turns out, however, it’s a myopically American interpretation. Blomkamp was, and in some ways still is, South African. In interviews, he has repeatedly denied the apartheid interpretation, and I am persuaded that he is not being disingenuous. His film portrays South Africa’s black and mixed-race populations to be at one with the white in their joint hatred of the aliens. Additionally, there are the Nigerian gangsters who exploit the creatures from space and even cannibalize them, hoping to acquire their strength and, more importantly, their ability to use those DNA-activated weapons. Not since the 1960’s, when The New Yorker and Playboy still ran cartoons featuring missionaries being boiled alive as gleeful Africans danced around them, has it been permissible to discuss African cannibalism.
Blomkamp is obsessed with conditions in today’s Johannesburg. He has said that within the next few decades the entire world will look like his former home city. He seems to mean that the racial, nationalist, and ethnic strife there will become the norm everywhere. There will no longer be oppressor and oppressed. Instead, we shall have the war of all against all. This is what he sees in the violent reaction of South African blacks to the massive emigration of Zimbab-weans to their country. By and large, they have not been moved by the fact that these people have fled the horrors Robert Mugabe has inflicted on them. In Blomkamp’s own words:
When we started filming the movie, we had this terrible situation where we woke up one morning to find out that Johannesburg was eating itself alive. Impoverished South Africans had started murdering impoverished Zimbabweans, necklacing them and burning them and chopping them up. That’s a very serious piece of contemporary South African society that also finds its way into the film: some impoverished citizens wanting other impoverished citizens out.
It seems that whites do not have a monopoly on intolerance.
Another dimension to District 9 has to do with the aliens’ apparent dimness. Although it’s not addressed directly in the film, Blomkamp has said that he imagined them to be members of a hive culture who have lost their queen bee. As a result they are unable to organize themselves or take initiative on their own. This explains why they alternate between passivity and random violence. Sound familiar? It’s all too analogous to our societies, in which the poor and uneducated react rather than plan, shout rather than reason, and thus make up a population easily led by the clever and unscrupulous few.
Blomkamp’s film couldn’t be more pessimistic about our immediate future, which makes its popularity exceedingly mysterious.