Monday, July 18, 2016

District 9

"To everyone’s surprise, the ship didn’t come to a stop…over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago..but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg.”

These opening words quickly establish that District 9 is going to be a much different film than other Science fiction alien movies that appear at the multiplex where the spaceship only stops over an American city. The shift to South Africa lays the groundwork for a film that explores complex issues related to politics, racism and is not content with being just another Sci-fi movie that is a battle between aliens and humans.

District 9 opens in a mockumentary fashion and interviews a few people who outline the early days of the alien arrival. The spaceship arrived back in 1982 and halted over Johannesburg. We learn that for 3 months the spaceship didn’t do anything, just remained suspended over the city. There was no first contact, no bright lights or any other events depicted in other Sci-fi films. It was humans who had to fly up to the spaceship and force entry. Once inside the spaceship, humans found malnourished aliens, creatures that were lean and starving. The appearance of the aliens as physically weak in District 9 is a deviation from conventional films. In other Sci-fi films and TV Shows, aliens are always shown to be strong and in some cases beautiful even if the aliens are arriving from a planet with no resources (food/water).

In District 9, once the aliens were extracted from the ship, they were placed in a camp named after the film’s title. The film them jumps to 2010, 28 years later, when it is decided that the aliens have to be relocated far away from the city centre. The contract for the alien relocation is given to Multi-National United (MNU) and Wikus (Sharlto Copley) goes along with a camera crew and the rest of the MNU team for a grand eviction event. Things don’t go as expected and Wikus becomes infected with alien fluid. This results in an alien mutation in him, a common theme in the Sci-fi genre, but with a twist. It turns out that the alien weapons can only be fired by the aliens because it requires their DNA. When Wikus gets infected, he can start firing the alien weapons that MNU had been unable to do for a long time. Naturally, he becomes a valuable commodity to MNU who want to conduct experiments on him. Wikus escapes but is a marked person and in the ultimate irony, he can only find a safe spot in District 9, the same slum-like camp where he was involved with the eviction of the aliens.

There are some action sequences in the film but the violence and action is nicely integrated in the story and the film doesn’t halt the overall narrative arc for a grand alien battle. The finale action scene takes place in the same slums that the rest of the film is shot in thereby making the action scenes an inevitable consequence of the hostility and tension brewing in the camp.

District 9 ensures that at each step, events are portrayed which reference other Science fiction films or tackle political and social problems. This is apparent in the opening 15 minutes of the film when a person being interviewed speaks the following words regarding the District 9 aliens or ‘prawns’ as they are called:

“They’re spending so much money to keep them here..when they could be spending it on other things. But at least—at least they’re keeping them separate from us.”

Such words have been spoken many times over the last 2 years, across Europe and North America. Politicians have used these words to further their campaign or garner support for their agenda. These words have referenced the refugees arriving in Europe and North America with the inference that the money spent on refugees could be spent on other things. Even though District 9 was released in 2009, these words make the film relevant to 2016.

“at least they’re keeping them separate from us.”

Segregation. This segregation is further emphasized by the signs that are visible in the film which indicate zones that are alien-free or locations where only humans are allowed. The setting of District 9 in South Africa and the film’s title makes this a direct reference to apartheid. In reality, there used to be a District six in Cape Town, where all the residents were forcibly removed during the apartheid era in the 1970s. Even though the film is directly rooted in South African history, the topic of segregation applies to many other societies from colonial times to present times. In modern society, there are battles, both in the real and virtual world, fought over the flood of refugees, immigrants and illegal aliens who cross the border without proper papers. Distrust of the foreigner is not a new concept and one that has existed for centuries. When the frustration with foreigners reaches a boiling point, riots, fights and wars take place. Similar events are shown in District 9 where daily riots, protests and fights between humans and aliens start taking place. This is what contributes to the decision resulting in the relocation of the aliens away from District 9. 

Along with the depiction of segregation, the film’s setting of the slums makes the content universal and applicable to other nations around the world. When refugees cross a border, they are placed in temporary camps, which is exactly what District 9 was meant to be. District 9 was a supposed to be a temporary holding place but just like in real life, the temporary camp ends up becoming a decades long stay. The problems that refugees face in camps around Asia and Africa, regarding social hierarchy and troubles with the locals, is exactly what District 9 covers in its representation of the everyday transactions that take place within the camp.

District 9 also highlights a relevant point regarding the impact on new generations raised in a temporary camp. In the film, an alien child is born and raised in the camp. The alien child asks his father what their planet is like and wants to go home even though he has never seen his home planet. This scene and the alien child’s questions are rooted in reality. Hundreds of children are born in refugee camps far away from their home nation and never get a chance to return to their homeland. As a result, an entire generation (or two) of people have no concept of understanding their roots and have to depend on stories or the rare picture of their homeland. In District 9, a hologram stands in for a photo of the planet the aliens left behind.

District 9 also tackles the concept of genocide. One key element that leads to genocide is when one group of people dehumanizes another group and considers the other group unworthy of living. In District 9, that concept is shown at face value as the tall, skinny and underfed aliens are the object of hatred of their neighbours. The sentiments of the people who live around District 9 indicates that if the South African government does not act to move the aliens, then something far more dangerous would likely take place. This act of potential violence against the aliens is also a twist on the regular Hollywood alien film template. In Hollywood films, aliens are portrayed as evil and go about wanting to exterminate humans on a large scale. District 9 shows that if aliens did land on earth, then it would be humans who would do more harm to the aliens than the other way around. Given the carnage humans have inflicted on each other over the last few decades, it is entirely believable that humans would be far more evil when dealing with aliens.

No alien film would be complete without a reference to Area 51 and District 9 manages to provide a smart variation on that element. The basis of many past sci-fi movies was that aliens were kept in Area 51 and government/military personnel used alien technology to develop weapons. District 9 picks up on this idea and expands it to illustrate private military contractors (MNU) wanting to harness the power of advanced alien weapons. Given the rise of private military contractors around the world, the film is properly updated.

Over the last few decades, Sci-fi movies have been reduced to spaceships, aliens, and lots of combats and explosions. However, the Sci-fi genre has always been richer than that. It is a genre that is alive with imagination, bursts with intelligent ideas and highlights the limitless possibilities that the human mind could tap into. Unlike other genres, Sci-fi films are never shy to stitch social issues, politics and human nature, in their framework. Even when Sci-fi films are set in an alternate universe or a far-away future, the stories are a reflection of either present society or the past. Sci-fi films hold a mirror up to our contemporary society and show us how humans treat each other, or mistreat as the case may be. In some cases, Sci-fi films extrapolate the future based on humanity’s current path.

District 9 embodies all of the above elements. The film shows an alternate future yet what it depicts is a reflection of our contemporary society and even our past. It is bold enough to incorporate topics of racism, segregation, genocide, poverty, refugees and border crossing. District 9 is a rare thing; it is an intelligent Science fiction alien film with plenty of political and social observations packaged under the guise of a summer multiplex film.

Note: this is cross-published on Wonders in the Dark website as part of their Top 100 Sci-fi films countdown.

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