Tuesday, March 07, 2017

"District 9": one-paragraph review

2009's "District 9" (hereinafter "D9") is directed by Neill Blomkamp ("flower field") and stars the indefatigable Sharlto Copley, who has gone on to prove his action and acting chops in movies like "Elysium" and "Hardcore Henry." It is the story of an alien mother ship that finds itself stranded for twenty years over Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens—about two million of them—are herded into an area that rapidly becomes a shanty/ghetto, and alien-human interaction is often tense and violent, with plenty of room for misunderstanding, double-dealing, perversion, betrayal, and murder. A human organization called the MNU (the appropriately soulless "Multinational United"—a name that means nothing*), the second-largest arms manufacturer on the planet, goes out in force into District 9 to serve eviction notices to the aliens (called by the speciesist epithet "prawns" for their crustacean looks and scavenging ways), who are to be moved to a different camp away from Johannesburg to defuse tensions with the locals. Leading the force is Wikus van de Merwe (Copley), who does his cheerful best to go from house to house, serving notices, flagging illegal activity, and burning alien eggs. At one point, Wikus finds a cylinder filled with a liquid that sprays all over him; this turns out to be a mutagen that begins to transform Wikus into an alien—but one who is now capable of using the aliens' DNA-activated weaponry. This makes Wikus both a wanted and a hunted commodity, even as he is shunned by fellow humans. Wikus befriends an alien with the human name of Christopher Johnson and gets involved in Christopher's attempts to get the mother ship off-planet. The film's exposition covers the background history of the aliens' arrival and misery, but the plot focuses on Wikus's physical transformation and his changing sympathies as the mutagen works more deeply into his chromosomal structure. I saw elements of "Enemy Mine" in this movie as a human learns to befriend aliens that are generally looked down upon or seen as adversaries; I also saw strong echoes of David Cronenberg's "The Fly" (with Jeff Goldblum), a film that also showcases fingernail loss, tooth loss, and assorted shots of skin-ripping body horror as the transformation worsens our protag's appearance. This being a film about a sequestered Other set in South Africa, the ambient apartheid metaphor is going to be inevitable; it's always somewhere, floating in the background. The film also pulls no punches in showing the world the bad side of Johannesburg; this is no tourist brochure the way the Lord of the Rings films were a proud advert for New Zealand (Peter Jackson co-produced D9, for what it's worth). After watching D9, I had absolutely no motivation ever to visit South Africa. The film is also Brian De Palma levels of bloody: once Wikus quickly "melds" with an alien rifle and, later, a full-sized mecha, evil humans start exploding like gorged mosquitoes being slapped. The special effects of D9 struck me as uneven in quality, and the aliens seemed far too human for the story to be too much of a departure from, say, a Star Trek episode (one alien even bangs its fist against a wall in anger—a very human gesture). I also had to wonder why the hell Wikus wasn't immediately quarantined** the moment he accidentally sprayed himself with the alien mutagen—and why other people he came in contact with (the man was coughing black fluid at points) weren't also quarantined. That was a huge plot hole for me. But flaws aside, D9 was eminently watchable—a rib-sticking blend of action flick and body-horror morality play... although I'd have trouble telling you what the film's central message was.

*For about two weeks, back when I was desperate for cash years and years ago, I worked as a telemarketer for a company with the equally faceless name of Dealer Broker Trust. May those fucking bloodsuckers rot in hell.

**D9 isn't unique among sci-fi films in showing poor infection-control procedures. You may recall I had a similar complaint about the truly fecal "Prometheus." And God help us, there's yet another goddamn sequel on the way.


Charles said...

Having been to both New Zealand and South Africa, let me just say that if I had to choose one to go back to, it would be the former. That being said, parts of Joburg are actually quite nice. The townships, on the other hand... not so much (and yes, I did visit a township, so I'm not just saying that).

Also, I don't really have time to get into this, but you're joking when you say you'd have trouble defining the film's central message, right? I mean, it's all about "othering" (sorry) and man's inhumanity to man. Or are you saying that there seemed to be a number of competing messages?

Kevin Kim said...


I don't think the film actually had a central message. Othering was definitely one big message among several, but as you pointed out in your own review/discussion/meditation, Wikus's transformation takes us out of any conventional paradigms. As a genetic border-straddler, Wikus is actually something of a liminal figure, I think. No, I'd say the film has several competing messages, though I'd be hard-pressed to lay them all out.

"A myth is a story telling truths that can only be told in a story," Tony Tambasco of Georgetown U. liked to say. A narrative truth isn't necessarily verbally articulable; it's more something you have to live out than try to explain in words. But how do you live out truths that arise from mutagens? (Or is the mutagen a metaphor for a metanoia that leads to the virtue of self-sacrifice?)

Kevin Kim said...

The movie sparked other thoughts that I couldn't fit into a single (albeit bloated) paragraph. Note, for example, that neither the humans nor the aliens are shown at their best and noblest: both races are fairly vile and venal, with neither side manifesting much dignity. If one theme is othering, the ironic counterpoint is just how similar the humans and aliens are.

To that extent, I do have to give D9 credit for not showing us a race of aliens with a far superior intellect and morality. They might be capable of interstellar flight, but the tech didn't seem utterly incomprehensible, and the aliens' weaponry implied that the aliens had similar notions of war and combat. The aliens' verbal interactions, both with humans and with each other, also struck me as not foreign at all. Verbiage flowed in a human way.

(Amazon Prime Video flashes trivia, during the film, that you can see by moving your cursor, and one piece of trivia notes that the aliens' speech was created by... rubbing a pumpkin.)

And let's talk more about "central message." For me, when I think of a movie's central message, I usually formulate it as an imperative: "Be kind to each other," or something like that. But that's actually hard to do with D9. Is the message really an anti-othering "Be kind to each other"? If the aliens come back and wipe out the human race, as some humans speculate might happen, it would almost seem as if the othering had been justified. No, I think that whatever messages there might be, they're narrative truths that can't really be spelled out simply.