Monday, August 24, 2009

A few thoughts about District 9

I finally got a chance to see District 9 with my son this weekend. Usually, sci-fi flicks aren't my first choice, but I remember seeing trailers for the film earlier this year, and was intrigued by the film's premise. Basically, the idea is that an alien ship ends up stranded just above Johannesburg, South Africa, and that the ship's inhabitants are eventually moved to an ostensibly temporary refugee camp that quickly becomes a slum. The aliens, who get referred to derogatorily as "prawns", are consistently treated as subhuman, mistreated, and exploited over the course of three decades by the time our story begins. A private corporation (MNU, or Multi-National United) that has been contracted to administer the encampment in Johannesburg, is charged with the task of moving District 9's inhabitants to a new concentration-camp-style location far-removed from the city. The individual responsible for overseeing the process, Wikus, comes into contact with a canister of fuel that turns out to infect him, causing him to mutate into alien form as the film progresses. Much of the rest of the film focuses on Wikus' struggle to find a way to reverse his condition, and two of the aliens (one we come to know as "Christopher" and his son) who struggle to reacquire the fuel canister so that they can return to their mother ship and return home. The ending itself is sufficiently ambiguous as to invite a possible sequel.

The political subtext alone would make the film worth a view. District 9 not only offers an allegory for South Africa's own troubled racial history (from the Apartheid era to the present), but also touches on the plight of other peoples who have been displaced and ghettoized in what are best characterized as open-air prisons. The situation in Gaza seemed most immediately salient in this regard. One also gets a stark reminder of how easily the dehumanization of an oppressed group can devolve into gross human rights abuses, including torture and cruel medical experimentation (shades of Nazi Germany). The role of private corporations in perpetrating these abuses also gets highlighted, with MNU serving as a combination of Haliburton and Blackwater/Xe that not only administers District 9, but employs mercenaries and engages in weapon development for what can be gathered must be a hefty profit. The use of propaganda as a means of obfuscating the abuses that are on-going as well as to discredit potential whistle-blowers also appears from time to time. The film is political, but is not at all heavy-handed in its presentation of its particular political slant.

The once-clueless Wikus comes face-to-face with the monstrous system of which he had until recently been part. His transformation is worthy of Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Also interesting to watch is the way in which the film makers work to make the aliens more likable, more empathetic as the film progresses. The audience never quite gets to truly read the aliens' facial expressions, but the aliens' body language is sufficiently similar to human body language as to permit us to accurately read their feelings over their treatment. Most poignant was when the alien known as Christopher encounters one of his friends who has been cruelly dismembered in MNU's medical research lab. Christopher's body language conveys the sizable emotional shock, grief, and anger that anyone thrown into that situation would experience. Also poignant are the interactions between Christopher and his son, as they discuss the home planet his son has never seen, and their mutual hopes and dreams to one day return. The audience is also treated to increasingly visible examples of empathic behavior not only among the aliens, but also as the the film progresses, between Wikus and the aliens as they eventually willingly risk their lives for one another.

Note that District 9 is filmed very much in the style of flicks such as The Blair Witch Project. The near-constant use of what appear to be hand-held camcorders to film the action make the experience quite dizzying on the big screen. That facet of the film got a bit distracting at times, but that is probably more a matter of personal taste on my part. That quibble aside, I'm curious to see if the makers of this film will treat us to a sequel. Given the film's commercial success and it's ambiguous ending, I'd be willing to wager that we'll be watching a District 10 in a couple years. I for one would be eager to see what more these film makers can do with this very fascinating world that they've created.

See also Benjamin Solah's review, as well as the film's websites: the ostensibly MNU-run and the dissident bloglike MNU Spreads Lies.

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