Hovering over Johannesburg like a CGI outtake from Close Encounters or Independence Day, the Mothership of District 9 looks like a far-off hallucination, something unreal shrouded in atmospheric mist. It is both ominous and ridiculous, yet the movie gets no more creative than that second-hand “gotcha” spectacle—which is also central to its promotional campaign. Newsflash: just because a film is advertised one way doesn’t mean that’s what the film is really about. Visiting extraterrestrials stuck on earth are forced to live as second-class citizens enduring humans’ degradation; and from there on, preposterousness rules in District 9.
That cartoonish Mothership image suggests the high-concept inanity featured in Children of Men and Cloverfield: it’s apocalyptic silliness. Not ominously beautiful like the civilization-in-peril tableau that caps Roy Andersson’s You, the Living (critic John Demetry described that climax as a “revelation out of [Morrissey’s] ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’”). Rather, the immanence in District 9 suggests a meager, insensitive imagination. It’s a nonsensical political metaphor.
Consider this: District 9’s South Africa-set story makes trash of that country’s Apartheid history by constructing a ludicrous allegory for segregation that involves human beings (South Africa’s white government, scientific and media authorities plus still-disadvantaged blacks) openly ostracizing extraterrestrials in shanty-town encampments that resemble South Africa’s bantustans.
It’s been 33 years since South Africa’s Soweto riots stirred the world’s disgust with that country’s regime where legal segregation kept blacks “apart” and in “hoods” (thus, Apartheid) unequal to whites. District 9’s sci-fi concept celebrates—yes, that’s the word—Soweto’s legacy by ignoring the issues of self-determination (where a mass demonstration by African students on June 16, 1976, protested their refusal to learn the dominant culture’s Afrikaans language). District 9 also trivializes the bloody outcome where an estimated 500 students were killed, by ignoring that complex history and enjoying its chaos. Let’s see if the Spielberg bashers put-off by the metaphysics in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will be as offended by District 9’s mangled anthropology.
District 9 represents the sloppiest and dopiest pop cinema—the kind that comes from a second-rate film culture. No surprise, this South African fantasia from director Neill Blomkamp was produced by the intellectually juvenile New Zealander Peter Jackson. It idiotically combines sci-fi wonderment with the inane “realism” of a mockumentary to show the South African government’s xenophobic response to a global threat: Alien-on-earth population has reached one million, all housed—like Katrina refugees or Soweto protestors—in restricted territories. “Before we knew it, it was a slum,” says Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley, a nervous, Daniel Day-Lewis type) who is a white executive for multinational corporation MNU. He brings a camera crew when he serves eviction notices to relocate the aliens. These restless, hostile (thus dangerous) foreigners resemble biped crustaceans and are derisively referred to as “prawns” just as South African blacks were derogatively tagged “kaffir.” Wikus tells the camera, “The prawn doesn’t understand. One has to say ‘This is our land. Please, will you go?’”
Wikus’ semi-polite attitude is a reversal of the European imperialism that started South African colonization. But the allegory is also misapplied because the prawn, who resent their mistreatment, primarily yearn to beam-up back to their Mothership. Blomkamp and Jackson want it every which way: The actuality-video threat of The Blair Witch Project, unstoppable violence like ID4 plus Spielberg’s otherworldly benevolence: factitiousness, killing and cosmic agape. This is how cinema gets turned into trash. Blomkamp and Jackson’s outrageously stupid idea boasts comic-book logic—Wikus gets infected alien fluid and starts to metamorphose into a Prawn Like Me monstrosity. But this cheap, dark-humored pass at empathy disgraces any greater cinematic potential.
When Luc Besson produced the 2007 parkour action film District B-13, he adapted genre mechanics to real-life historical problems in an attempt to come to terms with the current class and race conflicts in Parisian banlieus and their rising social tension. Besson understands how pop cinema can exercise and alleviate social frustration. District 9 becomes sheer exploitation—a sign of decayed compassion like the perverse vampirism as AIDS-and-homophobia allegory in HBO’s True Blood. Amidst the grotesqueries and social squalor, Blomkamp and Jackson interject the satiric mode of the Down Under mockumentary Cane Toads to depict the fearful encroachment of Others. It brings back ugly profiling from the bad-old-days of Apartheid: Scared humans describe Prawn satirically (“They steal sneakers, then check for the brand”) but the disdain has unfunny familiarity.
Even older racial stereotyping occurs when Nigerian immigrants enter the game as interlopers who operate a criminal underworld that exploits both aliens and the South Africans. Because the Prawns (“called bottom-feeders”) subsist on canned cat food, the Nigerian mob run a scam selling cat food at exorbitant prices. Their viciousness is almost comical in its Sam Jackson-style exaggeration. These malevolent blacks are also grinning cannibals who later threaten Wikus’ life. They’re a new breed of racist swagger; the kingpin sits in a wheelchair, big, black and scary. By this point, District 9 stops making sense and becomes careless agitation using social fears and filmmaking tropes Blomkamp and Jackson are ill-equipped to control.
This contemporary-set dystopic, sci-fi flick never becomes fun. (Michael Bay bashers who stupidly complain about the cultural-status of the twin Autobots in Transformers 2 should park their rectitude here.) Instead, District 9 illustrates the strange new state of racial and political identity. It suggests some lingering Afrikaans’ fear or, possibly, how Jackson really thinks about the Maori and Aborigines.
Fools will accept District 9 for fantasy, yet its use of parable and symbolism also evoke the almost total misunderstanding that surrounds the circumstance of racial confusion and frustration recently seen when Harvard University tycoon Henry Louis Gates Jr. played the race card against a white Cambridge cop. Opening so soon after that event—and adding to its unending media distortion—District 9 confirms that few media makers know how to perceive history, race and class relations.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Runtime: 112 min.
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