erik lundegaard


District 9 (2009)


“District 9” is as stupid from the left as “Transformers 2” is from the right.

“Transformers 2” is about sleek, metallic aliens who ally themselves with the U.S. military, and, despite the meddling of a petty bureaucrat, help protect the planet. The aliens stand tall, talk bland, ring hollow. They’re glossy and soulless. They’re basically metaphors for weaponry. That’s why the film feels of the right.

“District 9” is about slimy, crustacean-like aliens who ally themselves with a petty bureaucrat to protect themselves from the military. They scavenge, disregard property rights, spray gang graffiti. They’re soulful but gritty. They’re obviously metaphors for an oppressed minority. That’s why the film feels of the left.

These metaphors don’t reveal each film’s stupidity, just its politics. The stupidity comes, particularly for “District 9,” from adherence to the metaphor.

We quickly learn, for example, that 20 years ago an alien ship appeared over, not New York or D.C. or Paris or Beijing, but Johannesburg, South Africa. My thought: Cool! Plays off our movie assumptions. For three months nothing happened, the ship just hovered, and when we finally cut our way in we found the aliens malnourished and afraid. Interesting. They’ve traveled the galaxy but seem to have contracted a disease or something. So we transported the remainder of these aliens, over a million strong, into a neighborhood below, District 9, where they quickly become just another despised minority in just another slum on our planet. Um... Wait a minute.

Here’s where the metaphor overtakes logic. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp wants the aliens to be a despised minority so that’s what they become. And that’s all they become. Despite the fact that they’re aliens and—I can’t stress this enough—the existence of aliens changes everything. It’s a Copernicus moment.

So the craft hovers over Joburg. I like it. But the U.S. government, not to mention the E.U. and Russia and China, leave everything to petty South African bureaucrats and private military contractors? Please. Blomkamp and I are both cynical, we’re just cynical about different things.

Do we learn anything from these aliens—about their galaxy and home planet and technology? Apparently not. Does the aliens’ existence change the religions of the world, or our various views of God, in whose image we are supposedly made? Apparently no. Does it alter the U.N.? Foreign relations? Our planetary defense systems? Nope. The only thing that happens, apparently, is the ho-hum, the paperwork, the disgusted shake of the head that these creatures live in our midst.

In this way the film is in line with Blomkamp’s short films, including “Tempbot,” in which functioning robots become metaphors for office drones. Our big, modern problem, in other words, is our tendency to reduce the extraordinary (aliens, robots) to the mundane and subservient. That’s Blotkamp’s calling card and it’s a good calling card. It feels true because it’s what we’ve done with ourselves. The fact that we exist at all, in the forms we exist, is itself extraordinary, and we should be humbled and grateful for the opportunity no matter how we view this opportunity: as a fluke, a temporary aberration in a gigantic void, or as something central and eternal to existence. Instead we reduce it in the ways we reduce it. Life is big and we make everything small.

So I agree with the calling card. But Blotkamp mangles it here in order to make it fit this longer format.

Again: It’s 20 years after the arrival of aliens—now disparaged as “Prawns”—and they’re about to be relocated from District 9 to a newer ghetto: District 10. The man put in charge of this relocation, Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is the son-in-law of one of the higher-ups. He’s gloriously unsuited for the task but takes to it with the enthusiasm of the obtuse functionary he is.

Yet at the exact same hour—in one of the film’s many fantastic coincidences—two aliens, apparent leaders or captains, have finally developed the fuel necessary to get their ship going and return them to their planet. Until, that is, Wikus stumbles upon the fuel and gets sprayed in the face with it. Then it does what fuel often does when it’s sprayed in someone’s face. It begins to mutate him into an alien.

Once Wikus’ secret is out, the military-industrial complex he works for, MNU, carts him to a secret lab, where their scientists have been dissecting and experimenting on aliens, and where they learn that his Prawn-hand can fire advanced alien weaponry, which human hands can’t. They figure this information is worth billions. Believing, I suppose, that the melding of human and alien DNA gives them an “in” they didn’t have with their previous experiments, the scientists plan on dissecting Wikus. But he breaks free. Because they never sedated him. Why sedate someone you’re about to cut open?

There’s tons of this stuff. Nobody’s smart in this movie. Wikus, a bore from the start, keeps his cellphone, not realizing that MNU can track him with it; but then MNU doesn’t do a particularly good job of tracking him with it.

In another great coincidence, Wikus flees back to the same shack where he got sprayed in the face, and the alien there, “Chris Johnson,” lets him know what happened. The only way the metamorphosis can be reversed, he says, is with more fuel, but alas it’s gone. But wait! Wikus knows where it is! He’s seen it—back in the lab—and the two of them, like in a mismatched buddy movie, grab some alien weaponry and storm the lab.

In any film this cynical it’s almost required that one of the heroes be monumentally naive. As if the only way to be good in such a world is to just not know. And the one who doesn’t know here is “Chris Johnson.” Who should know. For 20 years he’s seen how humans have treated him and his family and his friends. And yet, in the lab, when he finds the carcasses of fellow aliens who have been experimented on, he slows and stares. And stares. And stares. We’ve seen this before, in movies with human characters, so, though he’s a CGI alien, we know what he’s going through. He’s shocked, shocked that human beings do this, and even when the military barges in and engages in a firefight with Wikus, he stands in the crossfire, just staring. That’s naive moment no. 1.

Here’s naive moment no. 2. Back at his shack, Chris decides that, rather than converting Wikus to a human, he’s going to use the fuel to immediately leave the planet and return in three years. He’s seen what these humans do and can’t let them continue to experiment on his fellow aliens. Fine. The problem? He tells this to Wikus. Who promptly knocks him out and takes his ship. Unfamiliar with alien technology, attacked by his own military, and not very bright to begin with, he crashes the thing.

More fighting. In the end Wikus backs the Prawns against the humans, allowing Chris to escape, and the chief military villain is torn apart by Prawns.

A few years ago I wrote a piece for MSNBC on the history of alien invasion movies, and “District 9,” fits with a particular subgenre: the crashlanders: “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “E.T.,” “Starman.” Aliens who are essentially lost children, pursued by government forces, and trying to find their way back home. But, watching, I was reminded less of these (good) movies and more of absurd b-pictures from the ’70s, such as “The Thing with Two Heads,” starring Rosie Grier and poor Ray Milland. A white bigot’s head on a soul brother’s body! Consider this “The Thing with the Alien Arm”: a bigoted bureaucrat sprouts an alien arm! It’s integrationist literature: “Prawn Like Me.”

The faux-documentary style of the film, generally used for exposition, wearied me, too. What does it mean that we frame more and more of our stories through this extra media lens? And what kind of awful documentary are they making in the future anyway? Who, in that world, needs to be told the details of when aliens arrived on earth? Oh right, I forgot. That moment wasn’t extraordinary, it was a nuisance. My bad.

Blomkamp leaves the ending open. Will the aliens return? Will they return angry? If so, none of the talking heads seem worried. The final shot is Wikus, completely transformed into an alien, thinking of his wife. It’s supposed to be poignant but it made me feel like a crashlander. I just wanted to go home.

—August 30, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard