District 9 Times That Same Song

District 9 is a mostly excellent pisstake on The Globalization Movie, a relatively recent film genre that examines the consequences of economic upheaval: extensive immigration, culture clashes, pollution, cities made of refuse. In the past ten years, we’ve seen globalization films such as City of God, Babel, and Children of Men garner considerable acclaim; Crash, the watered-down American version of these films, became a hit and won a Best Picture Oscar.

The Globalization Movie tells two kinds of stories. One is about how seemingly-disparate lives weave together. Through braided narrative strands, privileged and impoverished characters of all races slowly come to realize their  shared fate.  The other kind of story involves the good white man discovering The Truth about massive corporations (the iconic case being The Constant Gardener, in which Ralph Fiennes finds out that Big Pharma kills ). These movies do a bang-up job of sucking me in; their complicated plots give my brain something to work with, and I sympathize with their politics. But many of their tropes have already become cloying, so it’s refreshing to see District 9 skewer them.

And skewer it does. District 9 uses characterization, score, mise-en-scene, and special effects to replay the Globalization movie as a comedy. But not as a farce. The end result is not a rejection or repudiation of the politics of those other films–it’s a strange and disturbing kind of confirmation.

I’ll explain more, with spoilers, after the cut.

In District 9, an alien spaceship has stalled over Johannesburg. The insect-like race settles below in District 9, supervised by a privatized military force (with the unsubtle title of Multi-National United). As the action of the film begins, MNU employee Wikus van der Merve enters D9 to move the aliens and search for weaponry. He accidentally sprays himself with an alien canister and slowly begins to transform . . . into one of them! As his superiors attempt to harvest his body (so they can learn how to power the alien guns, which have a biological trigger mechanism),  Wikus hides out in District 9, brokering a deal with an alien named “Christopher Johnson” to help him turn human again. As Wikus helps Christopher retrieve the canister and helps him escape the planet, he finds himself at war with MNU’s private army.

Much of this is a chance to mock the globalization movie, and other sci-fi action in general. Wikus van der Merve is a Monty Pythonesque take on the Ralph Fiennes-type, crudely smiling, joking about aborting alien eggs. Although he’s the protagonist, it’s a kick watching him pay, over and over, for his stupidity. As Wikus fights off MNU’s army, the score sounds the Plaintive Ethnic Wail over and over again, a familiar sound from Crash, Amores Perros, Syriana, and other globalization films. His transformation into an alien echoes The Fly, and when he prances around in an alien-armored suit, it’s Iron Man as designed by Gundam. At one point, the aliens surround and kill a soldier like raptors in Jurassic Park.

District 9 doubles as a mock-mockumentary; that is, it pretends to be a mockumentary in fits and starts. This is another way in which it combats the now-familiar stories of globalization. Talking heads provide background on the alien race–but it becomes clear that they don’t really know what their subject all that well. When we see MNU security footage, it appears that their surveillance covers the whole world, but we learn its limitations when Wikus (not the brightest bulb) is able to shake it.

A Whedonesque Digression

One of the most enduring arguments about Buffy the Vampire Slayer was whether the show was actually feminist, or really faux-feminist. On the one hand, it’s about a strong woman who beats up bad guys. When people get deeper into the show, however, they discover that Buffy is stuck in doomed and addictive relationships with some of these vampires, and that her empowered position also prevents her from having a normal life–not all that feminist, unless you consider the show a descriptive allegory of women’s constrained opportunities for exercising freedom.* Which was more important, the iconic text, or the close reading? The end of the series muted this debate, as Buffy shared her power and took control of her gift.**

*which seems like Dollhouse‘s subject–Echo can do anything; that is, anything that she’s programmed to do.

**This is not the most interesting argument to have about Buffy, of course. I’m bringing it up because I think the pull between iconic and close readings is a central issue in how people use popular culture.


Which brings us to apartheid, an issue which swamps the film’s press coverage and hovers over the film itself. Despite the best efforts of creator Neil Blomkamp and some movie critics to let viewers know that it’s not really about apartheid, it’s hard for me to get away from the movie’s appropriation of it. Does District 9 trivialize apartheid–by turning Africans into aliens, by putting it in an gooey shoot-em-up, by playing it for laughs, by refusing to explicitly engage with the subject after the first 20 minutes? Or, in the tradition of many science fiction stories, does it wipe away the crusty tropes about apartheid by presenting it in a fresh and unfamiliar way?

This is the kind of choice that usually puts text at war with subtext, as we’ve seen in vampire and zombie entertainments. Are zombies really the conscious proletariat (or, as it’s now fashionable, Hardt & Negri’s multitude) or are they mindless husks that want to eat YOU? Are vampires misunderstood, or do they really want to suck your blood? Ambiguity rules the day, which is a good thing for art but a bad thing for social causes.

Here, however, the most cartoony elements of the film align to elicit sympathy for the aliens. The aliens we get to know most in District 9 are part of a Spielbergian family drama; it pulls at the heart-strings when Christopher’s wide-eyed kid learns how to use some junk technology or asks questions about home. Meanwhile, the MNU is not a morally complex operation–they’re goons, shock troops–serving the same role as standard-issue Nazis in other action films.

What makes this an effective piece of agitprop, to me,  is that many people don’t think of Private Military Corporations as unalloyed evil–they think of them as patriotic goods or necessary evils. And most people don’t think of those living in shantytowns as . . . well, they don’t think of them at all. So if we have sympathetic families battling against soulless goons, and if the alien guns create fun explosions, it’s really a no-brainer who we’re rooting for. I live in a military-heavy section of the country; some people in the sold-out audience probably work for PMCs. But the audience was united against MNU and cheered loudly whenever one of its human soldiers was liquefied.

I’m pretty uncomfortable with this rhetorical gambit: attach new referents to irresistible narratives about family and home. This is, after all, pretty much the same thing that keeps the Republican Party going. But even though District 9 has rejected the normal garments of the globalization movie, it still subscribes to the same premise. It will be interesting to see what other styles filmmakers might employ to come to grips with globalization.

On the way back from the theater, my cousin and I discussed the plausibility of the premise. If aliens landed here, we wouldn’t force them to live in lean-tos built with scrap metal, would we? Considering the way we treat other humans on this planet (not to mention other intelligent animals), I don’t see why we wouldn’t. Despite its efforts to distance itself from social commentary, the film contains that ineradicable kernel.

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August 2009
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