Hating the Alien: District 9

District 9

Remember Phil Cool? If you sat in front of a British TV in the early 1990s, you probably do. It was obligatory that you had to refer to him as the “rubber-faced” comedian, so twisty were his gurning impersonations. He’s still going, but for a while he was a primetime television fixture; I can well remember one of his jokes, where he mused over why alien invaders in movies always seemed to head for well known landmarks in the most iconic cities on Earth. Why didn’t they arrive in, for instance, Johannesburg? He then mimed a South African welcome party, beckoning with open arms to a flying saucer and calling out: “Don’t be frightened: we’re not going to treat you any different just because you’re green.” District 9 is that joke extruded to feature length.

District 9

It’s also probably the only film I can remember that seems to take place entirely at gunpoint. Barely a moment passes that someone isn’t pointing or firing a weapon at someone else. I get the point that it’s a depiction of a pressure cooker environment reaching a deadly state of intensity, but the constant threat is wearing after a while, and I was yearning for some downtime to develop the characters at a pitch below hysteria. Neil Blomkamp shares with his mentor Peter Jackson a high tolerance for mess. There’s no reservation about spraying bodily fluids from a range of outlets. There’s a very variable register, where the gouts of blood, mucus and vomit are either supposed to be shocking, funny or ghosthouse-gross, but the invitation to be entertained by the violence of it all (and almost everything in this film is maximally abrasive), most notably in the cathartic, tooled-up kickass killing spree at the climax, sits uncomfortably in a film that seemed to promise a more serious intent in analysing how ordinary people come to perform acts of oppression on a defenceless underclass.

So, while it’s a riveting and intense viewing experience, it throws away a great opportunity to really problematise the alien invasion genre. The most interesting aspects of the film are those that speculate on how earthlings would really respond to intergalactic visitors: not with flagwaving and synthesiser jingles, but with quarantine and concentration camps, bureaucracy. It shows the aftermath once the initial sense of childlike wonderment has worn off, and humans have let their instincts to control and dominate take over. Some of the responsibility for this unpleasant prediction of close encounters is passed onto a fictional giant corporation, Multi-National United (almost as cartoony as Robocop‘s OmniCorp), absolving the rest of us from the shame of passive acceptance of intergalactic racism. There’s a cowardly wish to palm off the nastier end of the exploitation to Nigerian immigrants making a killing off the aliens’ situation: the eye-rolling witchcraft fanatics who embody the worst excesses of human villainy belong in a different movie, one which isn’t claiming to poke holes in the fabric of humans’ propensity for paranoid stereotyping.

I can’t help comparing it to District 13, which also constructs an action adventure in a locked down ghetto, staging escapes distrcit 9 signand pitched battles as a visual allegory of contested space and caged bodies: District 13 uses the French banlieue for its allegorical inspiration, and 9 uses apartheid South Africa, 13 uses parkour as its main action ingredient, and 9 builds its conflicts around firepower competitions. There’s room on the market for both films, but a comparison of how they use genre to dramatise otherwise unphotogenic sites of resistance is instructive. I did wonder at first why, if the apartheid allegory is so fully developed as to be utterly blatant, they didn’t just make a film about apartheid, but this must surely be the more commercially viable option. I’m just not quite convinced that, amidst the explosions, it gives enough thinking space to really consider the horrific implications of its theme. Somewhere in there is the idea that alien visitors give humans the chance to momentarily forget about how much they hate each other. The aliens provide a convenient, contained Other upon which they can exercise their power. The cliched revelation that an evil corporation just wants to harness the alien weapons for their own ends is notable only for its extreme familiarity, but the notion of human indifference to the suffering of anyone it can compartmentalise as undeserving is a pertinent one for a drama.  But then, even Ronald Reagan knew that alien visitation would be the best thing to bring us all together, united in a utopian dream of universal hatred:

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10 thoughts on “Hating the Alien: District 9

  1. And you never said ‘fook’ once during the whole post!

    Of all the reviews and discussions of this film, this is the most negative – and the most interesting – I have come across.

    The familiarity of themes that you mention are, I think, one of the reasons the film works so well as a comedy. When the basic (political) concept is demolished amongst the fighting and explosions, the search for cat food, a comedy is all that remains. And this is the level at which I enjoyed the film.

    Best, Sean.

    • Hi, Sean. Well, if my comments were mostly negative, perhaps it was an unconscious effort to counterbalance the raves that are coming out of some quarters. I was certainly kept firmly in my seat by the film, and really appreciated the chance to see a genre blockbuster in an unaccustomed location. Lots of people have defended the film by pointing to its satirical or comedic levels, and I could see how the excess of it all might spill over into the kind of gross-out humour of the early Peter Jackson splatter films: the difference is that those films were genre exercises without the avowed deconstructive or subversive intent. Bad Taste is a collision of disgusting sight gags and the sheer charm of watching a group of enthusiasts have fun on their weekends. In District 9, I just couldn’t reconcile the crunching violence with that sense of jollity, probably because the iconography of it was built around familiar scenes of torture, oppression and racist murder. I felt like it was added as a reward for enduring the “complex political stuff”, a compensation for the preaching, but I didn’t need it – I wish they’d had the courage of their convictions and kept up with the more interesting explorations of human responses to alien immigrants. Maybe I’m getting old, but I wanted to see more bureaucracy! That was interesting enough for me…

  2. I saw Neill Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg a year or two before District 9. Seeing the feature film was really strange for me, as I found the start very reminiscent of the short film then only to see it gradually subsumed into a more familiar Hollywood action flick. Very much a film of two halves!

    I think it’s a bit harsh to label the film as a comedy, though. I found the whole cat food thing sad and pathetic. The ghetto, the mess, everything – I thought it was really interesting bringing the aliens down to Earth in such a manner. It’s arrogant to say that the political concept is ‘demolished’, even if it isn’t played as loudly as the gunplay at the end (gunplay which does eventually stop and allow the ‘Alive in Joburg’ style to reassert itself for the epilogue). It definitely could have done more but I think it deserves some recognition for what it does rather than what it doesn’t. Most sci-fi action films never approach this kind of territory, so I say hurrah for trying.

    It’s interesting trying to read the film’s transformation. The beginning of the film really is about apartheid – forced evictions, government brutality, segregation, etc. And then this situation is ‘solved’ by a Hollywood style shootout, guns, explosions, violence, high-tech war machines, etc. Something very nitty-gritty and ‘real’ develops into something fantastical. In the real world I think there probably isn’t any quick and narratively simple answer to the kind of problem the film postulates: maybe the producers knew that making a ‘realistic’ film would entail one without much narrative development or change, like a really big budget, fictional episode of Horizon. Social healing and change takes a long time and a lot of effort, and maybe putting that into a film about aliens was just too much to ask.

    On the other hand, the message at the end of the film was that nothing has changed. None of the Hollywood heroics matter, because you can’t change human nature: the aliens still live in squalor in segregated camps, scavenging scraps out of garbage, MNU still exists (and is still evil) and the giant spaceship is still (metaphorically) hanging over Johannesberg. So maybe there’s a message in there about how destructive trying to change that situation by force can be and how little all this macho violence achieves, too.

    To sum up: District 9 was all over the place and could have done so much more, but I liked it for trying.

    aside: Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson apparently only made District 9 after their previous project fell through – the feature film adaptation of the Halo video game franchise. No matter how hard I try can I imagine what that film would have been like!

  3. Hi Dan. I enjoyed your negative reading – especially / because the film has garnerd such praise. And I really did enjoy the film. It was a great film. It is just that the ‘explorations of human responses to alien immigrants’ quickly became secondary to the acrtion. The film, as I mentioned above, functioned best as a comedy – for me at least. Hence the opening line of my initial comment. Even the violence had a comedic element to it from what I remember.

    And I was not expecting this response to the film: the reviews and trailers, especially the trailers, positioned the films as a serious examination of immigration: the ‘talking heads’ heads were a major feature of these. Indeed, a whole post could be done on these alone. The trailers certainly presented a different film to the one I actually watched.

    I was expecting a serious film. I just don’t think it actually was. Sure, there were serious elements, they were just not as prominent as I thought they would be. I like your post for drawing attention to this. So maybe I am getting a bit too old as well!

    Novakoala: perhaps ‘demolished’ is too harsh. I did not intend my post to come across as arrogant. And you are right, the film does warrant a ‘hurrah for trying’. It;s just that as an overt political film I don’t think it worked – and it is this that I was responding to in Dan’s post. And your comments about the subdued ending are very illuminating – it is something I had overlooked. I only remember the origami / flower making.

    Best, Sean.

  4. Thanks, both.

    That final shot with the flower is interesting now that I think about it.

    (SPOILERS AHEAD IF ANYONE READING HASN’T SEEN THE FILM)

    We’re clearly supposed to notice that it is Wikus in his fully-mutated alien form, making little flowers and crafting beauty out of squalor, but the “documentary” component of the film claims to be oblivious as to his whereabouts. The shot seems to come from a different space, like the middle section of the film, which is not really part of the framing documentary. Cloverfield managed this mock documentary aspect by sticking to its template all the way through – there are no inserts from external commentators on the tape, and the devices such as flashbacks are internally justified (rewinds etc.). District 9 asks you to distinguish between the bits which are part of this documentary overview, and then to accept the scenes that couldn’t possibly have been captured by a camera crew. It’s not a problem, but is perhaps formal evidence of the film’s contest between the realist rigours of the documentary format and the greater freedoms of the “dramatised” passages.

    Now I’m reminded of the motif of mutation – it’s a great dramatic device, forcing Wikus into an empathetic stance: he has to walk in the aliens’ shoes and comes to understand their plight as a result. But it’s so implausible that it pushes things into a different zone of science fiction fantasy, perhaps marking that shift away from the documentary and into something distinct. It also confirms the humans’ fear of contamination – these aliens really are infectious and can take over your body: this is a common fear in alien invasion films, one which a more a pat liberal remix of the genre might have taken care to subvert or remove. So, I do agree with Nova that it leaves a lot of ambiguities by playing with genre expectations, reaffirming some and undercutting others. It’s certainly not simple. The end is “open” to an extent – will Christopher return with a vast army to free his people, for example? But these days, open endings seem less like a radical denial of closure than a setup for a sequel.

  5. ‘…these days, open endings seem less like a radical denial of closure than a setup for a sequel.’

    Both my wife and I mentioned, tongue-in-cheek, if we would go to see the sequel the end of the film anticipates – as the credits were rolling.

    This notion of open endings and sequals in film is interesting when compared to TV series. These are / were often open-ended (no-doubt ending only when viewing figures declined, or perhaps a major character left… I am guessing here).

    ‘Lost’ and ‘Fastforward’ however, both employ the hook of a finite number of episodes. That the narrative will, to some degree, be resolved. This was one of the attractions of the early ’24′ series also.

    Closure is now a means of attracting an audience. Compared to ‘The X Files’, which I remember many people expressing dis-satisfaction with as the series wore on due to the ever receding ending / relevation: always promised, always deferred.

    Reminds me of Jane’s Addiction: expressed as a five year musical project (and how excellent it was).And now resurrected twice.

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