Reviews

District 9

In District 9, racism provides the white guy with a very special growth experience.


District 9

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike
Rated: R
Studio: TriStar Pictures
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-08-14 (General release)
UK date: 2009-09-04 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) collects "juice." One of thousands of gangling, reptilian aliens who live in Johannesburg's nonhumans-only shantytown, District 9, he's got what no one else appears to have: a plan to escape. The juice, a kind of distilled alien-biological essence Christopher has been collecting for a decade, will fuel the small space ship he has hidden for years and painstakingly refurbished in his basement. And with that, Christopher and his son Little CJ will fly themselves to freedom -- here, a gigantic mothership that has been looming over Johannesburg since the day the aliens landed, some 20 years ago.

According to the scientists and sociologists interviewed in the faux-documentary sections of District 9, the aliens were instantly deemed nonhuman, that is, monstrous and subaltern, contemptible and incomprehensible. In Neill Blomkamp's dystopic vision of the earth's near future, the aliens stand seven feet tall, with multi-jawed mouths that resemble both predators and Stan Winston's acid-gooey aliens. Here they're not just human-demolishing others, but are victims of racism, called "prawns" and "bottom-feeders," living in poverty and regularly abused by cops and other authorities with guns. The film's moral and political set-up is rather too obvious, underlined repeatedly by TV-news reports and corporate videos of human troops kicking in the doors of alien shacks (in an effort to "relocate" the inhabitants who, according to their human persecutors, don't "understand the concept of ownership") and aliens scavenging in garbage dumps for food ("They've become obsessed with cat food," says one observer while an alien chews up and swallow a can, metal and paper and all).

As the film begins, the aliens are being "relocated" by Multi-National United (MNU), the corporation in charge of District 9, a splotch of real estate suddenly deemed valuable. The company assumes (and promotes the idea that) the aliens -- who speak a click-inflected language -- are unable to make plans, care about their families or build complex machinery. The judgmental humans are, of course, the wholly ignorant race here -- whether they're the white government types, represented primarily by the MNU dweeb Wikus (Sharlto Copley) and the scary bald mercenary Anton (Melt Sieberhagen), or black Nigerian cannibals, led by strongman Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbanyiwa). Significantly confined to a wheelchair (yes, he's weak and vile), Obesandio makes clear early on that he hopes to make voodoo use of alien flesh to regain his physical potency.

District 9's ostensible juxtaposition of bad whites and bad blacks actually privileges Wikus, who is himself persecuted by both groups, especially once he's infected by Christopher's juice and begins to transform into an alien. As Wikus' arm becomes a reptilian claw and one eye turns lizard-gold, he becomes utterly frightening to his wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood), whose father, Piet (Louis Minnaar), actually heads up MNU. He assigns Wikus to oversee the relocation, imagining it will be an easy job, then treats his son-in-law's ensuing body-identity crisis as an opportunity. Wikus' own sense of who he is -- that is, who's on what side -- changes radically when he witnesses Piet's betrayal. When the old man okays the harvesting of Wikus' organs for use in experiments aimed at gaining control over the aliens' weapons (plainly large and powerful, but operable only by bearers with alien DNA), Wikus embarks on his own adventure, seeking help from the aliens he just hours before perceived as inferior beasts.

Wikus' personal journey -- from self-righteous human to vulnerable and empathetic alien -- is part rambunctious action movie (lots of shooting and exploding) and part life lesson. As he enlists Christopher's help in finding his way back to a purely human status, he comes to appreciate how hard it is, daily, to be an alien (see also: Black Like Me, Watermelon Man). Worried that Wikus' plight might be perceived sympathetically, Piet piles on, with a PR campaign full of innuendo and outright lies. Not only does Wikus have to hide from troops assigned to bring him in for harvesting, but he also gags at tabloidy photo-shopped images of him having sex with aliens.

While it's not entirely clear how the aliens are gendered, this particular (and fleeting) version of perversity underscores the abject fear signified by the hybrid Wikus. When boundaries between them and us are breached, the order of history and civilization is undone. If District 9 doesn’t precisely explore or interrogate this fear, it does make explicit its effects on the hapless white guy, painfully ill-equipped to deal with hostility and discrimination. Whether it's the grisly cruelty mandated by Obesandjo or the days-long pursuit mounted by Anton, Wikus' suffering makes him more and more like an alien and less and less like his original self.

If the moral and metaphorical parameters of this transformation are obvious, the visual framework is acutely familiar. Not only do the aliens look enough like previous movie aliens that they won't shock viewers, but Christopher's story is especially recognizable. A single father with a conventionally adorable, big-eyed and precocious child, he resists Wikus' entreaties until he doesn't, and then only proceeds with the belief that he will help "his people." Christopher and Wikus' partnership is not quite so sentimental as the one in Enemy Mine, but it does grant both parties the chance to do right in the face of monumental and manifest wrong. Racism provides the white guy with a very special growth experience. Err, pretty to think so.

5

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.