District 9

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

My daughter and I hit District 9. We were a few minutes late and missed some of the background but not much. It’s documentary approach was immediately riveting. Wikus van der Merwe, played by Charlto Copley, was fantastic and the grittiness of the Johannesburg slums, the weaponry, and characterizations of the aliens was amazing in its realism.

The film is driven by an escape narrative. The escape plays in front of a backdrop of alien transfer to new and more controlled facilities. Wikus, after being infected with an strange and rare fuel during the relocation, begins a metamorphosis. He assists an alien and his son on the promise that medical equipment on the mothership, hovering above the city, can reverse the effects. They must retrieve the fuel to reach the mothership. Wikus and the alien develop a relationship of trust. Wikus puts his life in jeopardy for the alien’s.

But there are a few questions.

1. The aliens are pretty advanced. They have weapons and language. Supposedly they don’t use these tools to their benefit or for protection because they’re “workers.” But, in the film, they transact, show empathy, and make deals. How did they logically acclimate to their surroundings without wising to the ways of humans or their circumstances as these circumstances seem radically different from their origins? This behavioral acquiescence, which is an extended entomological metaphor, doesn’t quite hold water for this viewer.

2. The fictional world of District 9 is enclosed in a pocket of militarization in the form of a quasi-governmental corporation Multi-National United, a Blackwater sort of operation straight out of Ironman. MNU is charged with the care of the alien’s and their transfer and Wikus, a hapless MNU functionary, is put in charge of the operation because he’s married to the boss’s daughter. Hm. I love Wikus as a character but there are several weakening issues with his role in the responsibility of the project, but there you have it.

3. An extension of Problem 2 is the film’s assumption of endemic militarization, with no competing interests at all, which forms the film’s cultural/political point of view, the human urge to destroy things they don’t understand and exploit what they do. This I can understand in a world where military metaphors and military solutions run through the culture like salt in a curing house and stands out as a sign of the times. Outside influences are absent. Thus the film had a somewhat closeted feel, shunting other forces, such as the UN, away because they might complicate things.

4. Christopher Johnson, the name of the alien who escapes, claims that he wants to help his people (his transformation, like Wikus’ is a promise to assist him too)? Is this a play for a sequel and a video game?

I can understand the powerful images of “human” exploitation in the film, where 1966 resurfaces yet again. The films intensive focus on Wikus and Christopher as agents for right action is successful. I enjoyed the film. But the questions bug me. I’m the kind of film viewer who will ask: yeah, but why is that ship hovering in the air like that when its owners are on the ground scrounging for cat food?


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