District 9 Movie Analysis Essay

Warning: spoilers follow!

You have to admit: As a premise for a movie it is pretty unpromising. An alien spaceship comes to rest over Johannesburg.  Instead of conquering the planet, the aliens turn out to be in crisis: malnourished and in need of rescuing.  They end up living in a local slum, crammed together in a rusty shantytown.  When human Joburgers complain, a company is called in to move them – but things get out of hand, and it all escalates into car chases and gun-fights.   Stated like this, who would be blamed for deciding to give it a miss? It is hard to figure out what kind of movie it could be.  Some kind of half-baked take on District 6, set in the wrong city?  An American skop skiet en donder movie, with Parktown Prawns as the baddies?    When I first heard about the movie, I dismissed it without a thought; and indeed, even today, with the movie doing well at the box office, some reviewers and commentators seem reluctant to take it seriously.

Well, I’ve been to see it and I personally think it is the best movie I have yet seen about South Africa – and specifically, one of the most pentetrating, disconcerting and subversive meditations  on the nature of racism and repression in the post-colonial world.  District 9 is fresh and transgressive, hilariously funny and absolutely horrifying:  brutal,  sly,  streetwise  and in your face. It’s not a voice from the ghetto  – it is, completely and incontrovertibly, a white voice – but is a voice from the postcolonial periphery; a voice speaking harshly, grittily and urgently about the surrealism of racism and the confluence of violence and normality here at the edges of the West’s old empire.

But to whom does it speak?  Throughout the  film, one of my most recurrent thoughts was: how many people who are not from this country  will get what is going on here?  So many of its references, points and jokes  would make sense only to someone who lived here during the years of Apartheid.  To some extent the movie is successful because it works on two levels: an international audience can enjoy it simply as a sci-fi thriller, while at the same time there is another layer of meaning, accessible only to those who share the filmmaker’s cultural and political frame of reference.  But the key to the film, its centre, lies in its local subtext – while its iconography and genre conventions would be familiar only to hardcore science fiction aficionados.

In some ways, of course, the film’s insistent local-ness is the first thing most critics have noticed about it.  The South African mise en scene is  precisely and affectionately realised.   It’s all there, and beautifully done:  the welter of South African accents, black and white (so thick that the producers give us subtitles much of the time),  the incessant Afrikaans swearing and obscenity; the endless  local cultural references. The movie has a lot of fun with this, parading its provincial roots with a kind of delighted embarassment.  The hero Wikus’s tacky Benoni home; his awful relatives; his fading-beauty of a wife;  the earnest academics from ‘Kempton Park University,’ spouting platitudes at the camera in their crap hairstyles and shabby academic clothes… we’ve seen it all a million times before, on Special Assignment and Carte Blanche. All the delights of our own ethnoscape – all the more pleasing because it is done with such a light, subversive touch. No wonder South African audiences love it:  at the screening where I saw it, the darkness was alive with ripples of laughter throughout the movie.

But more is at stake here.  This is not just a remake of Alien with people shouting fok a lot. The movie’s verisimilitude comes with an agenda, and the reality it seeks to describe is very specific.  For what you seeing is not just South Africa, but that South Africa that we think we’ve left behind, that we think we’ve forgotten …  until you come across a reminder that brings it home to you so forcefully that you realise you’ve never left: Apartheid South Africa; State of Emergency South Africa; forced removal South Africa.  This is at the centre of the extended set-piece that forms the heart of the first part of the movie – the long, chaotic sequence where the hired mercenaries and functionaries of  MNU, the firm to which the government has outsourced the task of the ‘clean up’ of the ghetto, have their first encounter with the reluctant, soon-to-be-displaced Alien population.  It is  a cinematic tour de force; one of the most sustained and brilliant pieces of filmmaking I can recall seeing  —  but I wonder whether any of the movie’s international audience will even understand  a fraction of what is going on here.

Forced removal, 21st-century style

As anyone who lived with any kind of political awareness through the eighteen years between 1976 and 1994 in South Africa will immediately see, what the film is doing here is to give you an almost obsessively focussed, insistently detailed account of the workings of  the Apartheid state’s repressive apparatus as it existed during the regime’s most conflictual years.  Apartheid repression was never just about violence. Instead, it was a strange and carefully composed mix of brutal force, racist anthropology, Foucauldian surveillance, and a curious, bureaucratic obsession with the appearance of due process and the rule of law.  Every single thing you see in this scene  – the harassed, edgy bureaucrats with their clipboards and their explanations; the ludicrous attempts to get the aliens to sign the consent forms prior to their removal to the tent town; the prowling military thugs; the constant threat of violence, spiralling out of control; the chaos and confusion – all of it is precisely how it all worked.  Watching it, I suddenly remembered, with vertiginous clarity: Crossroads.  KTC. The Witdoeke.  Jeff Benzien. Dolf Odendaal.  Some of you reading this blog – you were there too. You know of whom and of what I speak.

Wikus

What makes it brilliant cinema, of course – what makes it all come together as it does, is not just this accuracy; not even the disorienting, vertiginous, documentary-style way in which Blomkamp renders the almost-out-of-control chaos of the engagement. It is above all, the figure of Wikus van der Merwe, surely one of the most unlikely protagonists that cinema has produced in a long while. One of the high points of a pretty impressive performance on the part of the actor Sharlto Copley is his rendition of Wikus during the forced removal, half the time trying to control the whole mad show, and half the time acting as a kind of crazed, geeky curator, speed-talking at the camera and describing in awful English every aspect of what is going on.

The whole point of Wikus, of course, is that he is such a prat. He is thick as a plank. He is awful. He is as unlike a Bruce Willis or a Samuel Jackson as it is possible to be –  and this is at least partly because he is Afrikaans. He is not just Afrikaans, he is a rockspider. He is a doos, a chop, a moegoe. He mangles English with hilarious ineptness. He is cringe-makingly uncool: cheesily in love with his ‘angel’ wife, dorkily clumsy in front of the camera, cravenly obedient to authority,  crudely bullying to the aliens that he deals with, and horrifyingly inept in his dealings with his Black underlings, whom he patronizes with cheery ignorance.  At the same time, in his earnestness, in his desire to be liked, in his bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eagerness to make a success of this impossible, chaotic, disaster of a job, one cannot but like him.

At one level, the character of   Wikus allows the movie to have a huge amount of satirical fun with the stupidity and ignorance of his outlook and what he represents, for of course Wikus’s exasperated encounters with angry, uncomprehending, resistant aliens precisely mimic and pillory the carryings-on Apartheid officialdom at its crude and idiotic worst.  One of the funniest standing jokes in the movie is Wikus’s relationship with the alien whom he refers to throughout the film as Christopher Johnson. (‘I cannot do the clicks’).  From time to time Wikus will stop, fix the camera with his glowing eyes, and start talking about what ‘the Prawn’ needs; what ‘the Prawn’ should do.   That was precisely t way in which Apartheid officials used to pontificate about  the nature of ‘the Black man’ or ‘the Bantu.’

'Christopher Johnson.'

But this not all that is going on. For all of its attention to historical echoes, District 9 is not simply an allegory about forced removals, and the aliens in the movie are not black South Africans in disguise.  Rather, what is happening here is something altogether more significant and ambitious: the metaphors and tropes of science fiction are being used to engage rather more deeply and disconcertingly with the nature of racism itself – with the way that racist ideology and discourse deals with the feared, hated, despised  (and desired!) ‘Other.’

This is the heart of the film. In many ways the most disturbing and unsettling aspect of the movie is the rendition of the aliens themselves, who appear like nothing so much as huge, quasi-human cockroaches.  They are ‘prawns’, they are ‘bottom feeders’, they appear to be addicted to giant tins of blue cat food; they live on rubbish dumps, they breed.  They are disgusting.  And that is the point. For  – if I may be allowed to wax academic for a bit – the figures of  the aliens are, in a sense, nothing other than the exaggerated, concrete rendering of the way in which racist discourse depicts its objects: the way Nazism talked about ‘the Jew’ and Apartheid ideology talked about ‘Coloureds’;  the way present-day  white racists in Europe (and black and white xenophobes down here!)  talk about immigrants; the way Radio Interahamwe talked about Tutsis.  By presenting the aliens to us, not as attractive, noble creatures, by making them half-human and half insect, the film constantly trips us up by making the racist gaze our gaze. It confronts us with our complicity with racism, by  making us identify with the perspective of the racist, inviting us to feel the revulsion of the xenophobe – and then pulling the carpet from under our feet.

It is this tension that produces what must be the most toe-curlingly awful moment in the film – the scene where Wikus and his men stumble across the breeding house where the alien grubs are feeding on the decomposing body of a cow, and proceed to torch the place.   The shack is in flames; from its interior a gruesome series of popping noises is  heard; Wikus  speaks delightedly to the camera, stammering in his excitement as he explains that that sound is the noise of the ‘little fellows’ exploding like popcorn.  On the one hand, we in the audience share his delighted revulsion in the cleansing of that awful, insectile, maggoty interior – and at the same time, we are disconcertingly aware that we are witnessing a scene of genocide.  The film will spare us nothing.

Rather more subtly – but perhaps more disturbingly  –  the same logic is at play in the film’s treatment of the reviled ‘Nigerians’, who are depicted in much the same fantastical ‘othering’ way as the aliens themselves.   Like the aliens, the ‘Nigerians’ are rendered as surrealistically horrendous; in fact part of their awfulness is that they live so close to the aliens, doing business with them, even (or so some of the whites in the film fantasize) having sex with them.  And no wonder. For in the racist world view, the most terrible thing about the relation with the Other is that the boundary might break down –  that ‘they’ might become like ‘us’, or we like ‘them’.

And that, of course, is Wikus’s fate.

It is here that the movie’s location in the genre of science fiction becomes so crucial. For the modern-day science fiction notion of the alien is arguably one of the ways in which the West can imagine and re-imagine its encounters with those it colonised and racialised.  Part of the fascination of the science- fictional notion of the alien is that it allows us to imagine an encounter with an ‘other’ that is both like and entirely unlike us – and who therefore brings the thrilling possibility that ‘they’ might do to ‘us’ what ‘we,’ the whites, the Northerners, have done to blacks, to Indians, to ‘natives’ on so many places of own world.  ‘Take us to your leader’ says the tall ambiguous figure…   And then? Do they come in peace? Are they wise? Do they bring technology or miraculous  medicine? Do they invite us to join an interstellar commonwealth of worlds?  Or do they eviscerate us, turn us into slaves, eat our children, take our land?

This is what makes Wikus’s journey so wrenching and profound.  The compelling and mysterious thing about the aliens in District 9 is the deep ambiguity that they represent.  Are they a culture of superbeings, more advanced than us? Their spaceship, looming hugely over Johannesburg, seems to suggest that.  Or are they cockroaches; depraved, subhuman, corrupt; so decayed that even with all their weaponry they are nothing but victims?    That question hangs over the whole movie  —  and nowhere more disquietingly than when Wikus realises that he is physically turning into an alien.  What does this transformation mean?  At one level, it is a fall into death, it is the body rotting: teeth falling out, nails dropping off, the white  skin flaking, sliming, growing black scales.    But it also brings with it a strange promise: the possibility of a different relationship with the aliens – and of course, the ability to manipulate all that awesome weaponry.

All this comes together in one of the most inspired moments of the whole film.  Wikus and the alien ‘Christopher Johnson’ are in the bowels of the MNU building.  They have secured the vial of fluid that they need to effect their escape plan.  They are in a firefight: the scene is indescribably chaotic, with junk and destroyed equipment scattered all around, gunshots,  bullets flying everywhere.  A moment ago, horrifyingly, they stumbled across the lab where the MNU has been torturing and conducting medical experiments uponthe aliens. Wikus protests his innocence – I did not know this was happening, he says – but his protests sound feeble and unconvincing even to us.  By now we are used to anthropomorphising ‘Christopher’, and we can see the horror and the pity – and the rage – that we imagine flowing through him as he looks at the ravaged body of his murdered kin. We can see that he would be entirely within his rights to smear Wikus then and there, and go his own way.  But he runs across the passage to join him, and together they crouch behind a bulkhead, the room filling with smoke and the thunder of gunshots, firing madly round corners, covering each other as they dash down the passage.  And suddenly we are watching … a buddy movie. I thought it was the most thrilling moment in the whole film- not because of the excitement of the action, but because the panache and the knowingness with which the movie draws upon – and re-invents – the genres within which it operates.  There are many movies in which the aliens are good guys – but never aliens that look like this.  Wikus has crossed over to the other side.  And so have we. For the rest of the film, we will look at the humans with fear and distrust, and when the mercenary Kobus Venter finally gets his gruesome come-uppance – he is torn apart alive, eviscerated and eaten by a group of aliens – the audience cheers.

So Wikus at last  becomes a man: by ceasing to be one.  In the final desparate battle of the film,  clad in a giant alien exoskeleton that disintegrates around him, he has has nothing left but his courage.  We don’t know whether he will ever find his way back to the human side of the fence again. The last scene shows him, completely transformed into an alien now, crouching among the rubble and debris of the ghetto, fashioning a flower out of scrap metal and tin cans.  It is a beautiful image – and ever so slightly cheesy. But that’s Wikus for you.  You can take the alien out of Benoni, but you can’t take Benoni out of the alien.  Strangely enough, we know that Wikus is now more at home on this blasted, fractured landscape than he has ever been in his life.

So, a strange and disturbing film; disorienting and discombobulating at more than one level.  It is thoroughly and utterly South African, but it inhabits its post-human cyborg sci-fi imaginary with knowing Northern familiarity.  It is clearly intended to comment and question on racism and xenophobia (it started life as a short movie questioning South African attitudes to, among others, those dreaded Nigerians) but it gets its effects through forcing you, the viewer, time and time again, to be the racist.   It is affectionately patriotic, but it frames its local and regional content by consistently ridiculing it.  It crackles with life and energy, but the landscape is the landscape of death: decayed, raddled, crumbing, strewn with garbage .  The moments of beauty in the film are the lingering shots of shantytown filth, settling gently in the breeze.  Above all, it is resolutely non-serious.  This is where the film stands head and shoulders above most other attempts to say something about our past.  At last we have a film that is not pompous,  does not moralise, does not offer lessons.  It does not attempt to be blameless.  Instead, it parades its own crudeness.  This is South Africa, it says.  A great place, as I said earlier this week, for trauma.  This is how awful we are. This is what we are like. Could you live here?

There’s one last inversion.  One of the most abiding images in the film is of the alien spaceship: huge, threatening, enigmatic, hanging over the Joburg skyline.  It is ominous, brooding (hanging there like the future, says one friend of mine;  like the mines under the surface of the city, says another).  And it looks so right that next time I am at OR Tambo international airport, I know that I will reflexively look up  to see if it is still there.   But the continual presence of the ship forces one more question.    Who is it who arrived, uninvited, in South Africa?  Who is it who came one day in a ship, and stayed, and did not leave?  In Johannesburg: who are the aliens?

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District 9: A Post-Colonial Analysis

Neil Blomkamp’sDistrict 9 narrates the story of an alien invasion where humans treat the aliens as refugees. The story begins by providing historical background on the sudden appearance of a spaceship hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. At first, the aliens receive assistance from citizens, yet tension gradually rises: people begin to feel that the aliens have prolonged their stay. Over time, people segregate the aliens, treating them as refugees.

The plot focuses on Wikus van der Werwe, a head operative of the M.N.U. in charge of relocating the aliens from District 9 to District 10. As Wikusevicts the aliens, he encounters Christopher Johnson, an alien who shows more knowledge compared to the rest of the aliens since he is aware of how to distinguish alien technology from human technology. In addition, he’s aware that alien technology provides the black liquid needed to fuel the spaceship and leave Earth. Furthermore, his home reveals various computer hardware, implying that Christopher Johnson is technology-oriented, as opposed to the rest of the aliens that are worker-oriented. During the relocation, Wikusis exposed to an alien chemical, gradually transforming him into an alien. Although Wikus confiscates the black liquid, his transformation accelerates, horrifying him and other people. Because his transformation allows him to operate alien technology such as weapons, he’s hunted by the M.N.U. Persecuted and alienated, Wikus finds shelter with Christopher Johnson and his son. Together Wikus and Christopher Johnson recover the black liquid, which will allow Christopher Johnson to return home and provideWikus with a cure to return to his former state.

Wikus van der Werwe works for the government “engag[ing] with the prawn on behalf of M.N.U. and on behalf of humans.” In order to appease the demands of the Johannesburg citizens, the Multi-National United assigns Wikus and his team to evict the aliens from their residences and re-assign them to District 10, moving them away from the populated city and relocating them to an isolated area. In the beginning, audiences observe how Wikus and his team treat the aliens. While the military prefers to shoot and kill any aliens unwilling to concede, Wikus prefers to engage with the aliens in a non-aggressive manner. However, when Wikus discovers a shack filled with eggs, he performs an abortion. Although Wikus follows direct protocol, he fails to recognize that he’s exterminating a species. Wikus displays no remorse towards his actions, suggesting that he’s adapted to the government’s policies. These two separate acts reveal the hypocritical nature of the government’s involvement. Although the M.N.U. claims to have the aliens’ best interest at hand, their motivation is purely self-interested.

Settler Colonialism

The alien refugees are an example of a settler colony. Patrick Wolfe argues that “settler colonialism destroys to replace” (388). Wolfe argues that settler colonialism and genocide does not target particular races but is “made in the targeting” (388). Wolfe’s statement suggests that there is a process to replacement. In the case of District 9, humans are interested in the weapons, while the aliens are engrossed with the cat food. While settler colonialism encourages exchanging resources and language, this positive attitude gradually evolves to fear and hatred. Furthermore, it is not surprising that the settled colony faces oppression. One commentator in the film argues, “The legality that M.N.U. is using to evict the aliens is simply a whitewash.” While the M.N.U. claims the removal of the aliens is due to humanitarian reasons, the central focus, as the film points out, is weapons. Although the arrival of the aliens disrupts the daily lives of citizens, this also provides the M.N.U. with rich resources. To the dismay of many citizens, the aliens inevitably live in Johannesburg, and the government reacts by removing the aliens into a remote piece of land. This government action reflects settler colonialism. In this case, the aliens have settled in District 9, while the M.N.U. assume authorial power. The objective of settler colonialism relies on acquiring indigenous territory and resources, resulting in exterminating the natives. According to Lorenzo Veracini, he argues that the aliens in District 9, along with “indigenous peoples in other settler colonial settings,” represent “obstacles,” therefore, people have no use for them except for the land they inhabit (361). Through colonialism, the indigenous expose and share the culture with the colonists. With colonialism, this brings interbreeding between different racial groups through marriage or sexual relations known as miscegenation.

Miscegenation

According to Wolfe, he argues that settler colonialism “encourage[s] miscegenation” (388). District 9 refers to miscegenation twice in the film: once when the film details a prostitution ring between humans and the aliens, and a second time when Wikus begins to transform into an alien and reports of inter-species relations claim to be the cause of his transformation. These false reports not only alienate Wikus, but also show the concerns of miscegenation. When news spread that intersexual relations with an alien is the cause of Wikus‘ transformation, people show alarm and disgust, suggesting that race-mixing is not acceptable. Since people oppose the interbreeding between alien and human, this reveals hatred toward the other race. As Wikus progressively transforms into an alien, he becomes someone who rejects his own race. According to F. James Davis, people who are “racially mixed” are “socially marginal,” meaning they are not accepted from either parent group, leaving them susceptible for discrimination (25). The transformation horrifies Wikus. After black bile drips from his nose and losing several of his fingernails and teeth, Wikus still denies his change. As his arm changes into an alien claw, Wikus tries to cut off his own hand, leading him to cry out in pain. Since Wikus feels pain when he cuts off a finger, this shows, to Wikus‘ horror, that the alien arm is a part of him. His transformation represents the fear of and realization of the “one-drop rule.” According to Davis, a drop of “black blood” defines a person as black (5). Because Wikus denies his race, he recognizes that aliens are inferior to humans. He knows that as a human being he retains certain rights and privileges; additionally, he’s fully aware that aliens are not accepted by society. If society allows miscegenation, this brings peace and harmony among race relations. However, since society prohibits miscegenation, there exists no balance between humans and aliens.

Due to the sudden exposure of alien biotechnology, Wikus experiences an unfamiliar culture, causing him to interact with the aliens, specifically Christopher Johnson and his son. This exposure allows Wikus to identify with the aliens, permitting Wikus to grow sympathetic towards the aliens. Because of his gradual transformation into an alien, Wikusis experimented on by scientists from M.N.U. experiment on Wikus to test various alien weapons. After shooting various animal carcasses, the scientists order Wikus to shoot an alien. Although he refuses to shoot, Wikus is ultimately forced to kill the alien. During his stay with the scientists, Wikus becomes aware of the unfair violence and abuse towards the aliens. In the case of Christopher Johnson, he and Wikus unite and fight together for separate reasons: Christopher Johnson wants to go home and Wikus wants a cure that only Christopher Johnson can provide. As Wikus continues to transform, his perception on the aliens changes. Towards the end of the film, Wikus leaves Christopher Johnson to face a brutal death, yet he saves him, an act which displays sympathy and acceptance of not only the alien who promises to cure him, but also acceptance of his own race.

Xenophobia

Once Wikus separates himself from society, this leads the audience to “identif[y] with the protagonist,” building “tension and identification…used to deliver a powerful critique of contemporary developments” (359). Apart from miscegenation, the film critiques issues of xenophobia and “privatized violence” (359). The commentary provided at the start of the film reveals xenophobic attitudes towards the aliens.

The aliens are evicted from the townships, living away from human beings. Footage reveals that there are hate crimes against the aliens (i.e. shooting riots and burning down the aliens’ homes). The film also depicts citizens segregating the humans from the aliens. By relocating the aliens from District 9 to District 10, people hope the violence will cease; however, the relocation allows people to avoid confronting and resolving the racial problems.

The film’s antagonist, Koobus Venter, serves in the military and displays a ruthless and callous attitude towards the aliens. Since Koobus displays xenophobic behavior, this suggests that xenophobia is a common attitude among Johannesburg. Although xenophobia pertains to the irrational fear or hatred towards foreigners, xenophobia does derive from a cause. Xenophobia can arise as a result of poor education or alienation of those that are different. Another cause of xenophobia is propaganda. At the beginning of the film, audiences see signs displaying segregation, visually dividing the humans from the aliens. The use of racial propaganda manipulates the information and influences people to believe one side of the argument, thereby creating stereotypes. The aliens, for example, receive the derogatory name “prawn” to indicate their appearance and low rank. Because the film depicts xenophobia, this provides a critique on a social issue, suggesting an act to reform.

As the film tackles themes and social issues such as xenophobia, miscegenation, and privatized violence, the film reveals humanity’s cruel nature. District 9 is not just a science fiction film, but a film depicting issues of race that still remain relevant to this day.

Work Cited

Davis, F. James. Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition. 10th ed. Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2001. Print.

Veracini, Lorenzo. “District 9 and Avatar: Science Fiction and Settler Colonialism.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 32.4 (2011): 355-367. Academic Search Complete. Web.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8.4 (2006):387-409. Academic Search Complete. Web.

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