Review: District 9 – You’ll often see film posters here that claim the first showing in the world. Thanks to Korea’s love of film and its location (that is, closer to the early side of the International Date Line than most countries), this is often the case for big-budget productions. The third Pirates of the Caribbean, for example opened first in Korea, and I was at one of those first showings. Of course, this is only true for guaranteed hits, and the distributors here don’t seem too keen on taking risks. So while a handful of peak season blockbusters—some of which are worth watching and some (perhaps most) of which aren’t—open either at the same time or sooner than the rest of the world, it is often the case that more worthwhile pictures get the shaft and open considerably later.
Take District 9, for example. It opened on August 14 in the States, but didn’t open until October 15 here—two months and a day later. I guess being produced by Peter Jackson wasn’t enough. After all, the director and the cast are virtually unknown outside of their home country. The lead actor had never even acted in a feature film before this one! I suppose it was too much to hope for a simultaneous release. But two months? Maybe the general lack of enthusiasm for science fiction in Korea (or, as Hyunjin put it, “general audiences in Korea go to see sci-fi films for the spectacle”) had something to do with it as well. Whatever the case, I waited a long time to see this film, and on Saturday (two days after it opened) we finally got the chance. My verdict in a nutshell? Probably the best film I’ve seen so far this year. We don’t see too many films, but the list of what I’ve sampled from the buffet this year includes (off the top of my head and in no particular order): The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Coraline, Watchmen, Star Trek, Public Enemies, Angels & Demons, and Up. If we’re just going by how the film moved me, District 9 blows away everything else (including Benjamin Button, which, being the sap I am, I found quite moving). Even considering all the other criteria by which one judges films, I think it might still beat out Star Trek, which held the number one spot for me.
I’ll warn you right now: this is going to be a rather long post. “Long” may, in fact, be an understatement—I haven’t been keeping track, but it very well may be the longest entry I’ve ever written. At any rate, it is well over seven thousand words. (OK, I couldn’t help myself: I did a quick Google search through Liminality on “longest entry,” since I tend to obsess about these things, and it turns out the previous record is around 6,200 words, so hooray me.) As you can see in the title, I’m calling it a review, but I honestly don’t know if that is what it is. I do talk mostly about the film, but in the middle I veer off on tangents that have very little direct relationship to the film. In fact, after writing the first draft, I debated cutting certain parts because I thought they might go too far for even a tangent, or not fit with the format of a review, or (if I’m going to be perfectly honest) maybe get a little too personal. In the end, though, I’ve decided to leave things more or less as they are. It is true that I am careful about what I say here, but I have never been shy about sharing my feelings and experiences, so I guess there’s no point in getting all sensitive about it now.
But back to the review part: I should warn you now that there will be spoilers, and massive spoilers at that. I’m not too concerned about this, seeing as how the film’s been out for two months everywhere else, but if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip this entry for now, go see the film, and come back. Be aware that there is a bit of gore (body parts falling off, people getting liquefied, just to name a couple examples), and you will at the very least be uncomfortable during a few scenes, but it is a great film. Hyunjin, who is not at all into gore and not particularly into science fiction either, described it as “a science fiction film for elites.” This is a literal translation of what she said, but what she meant would be more like, “this is the thinking man’s science fiction film.” And she enjoyed it very much. Anyway, go see it. Seriously. I’ll wait until you come back.
So, where to begin? I suppose a quick run through of the plot is inevitable, both to refresh my memory and to provide a jumping off point for discussion. I’ll try to keep that as brief as possible while still touching on all the major plot points. The film begins on an earth where aliens have been here for twenty years. They are not an invading horde that has subjugated the human race and put us to work in their mines. Nor are they a benevolent race of super-intelligent beings who have unlocked the secrets of the universe for us. Instead, they are... well, refugees. When their ship comes to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa, it just sits for three months, not doing anything. The only activity is something falling from the ship, but that something is never found (well, not for twenty years, at least). When humans finally decide to enter the ship, they find a dark, wet interior filled with malnourished alien creatures.
When I saw this scene, there was an unmistakable connection for me to stories of people being smuggled into countries in shipping containers. That’s exactly what it felt like, and it probably helped color my perception of the aliens. At any rate, the aliens are brought down to earth and provided with a place to live: District 9. Over the years this turns into a shanty town, and the residents of Johannesburg finally demand that the aliens be moved out of the city. An entity called Multi-National United (MNU) is charged with the task of evicting the aliens and moving to their new home, a fenced-in tent camp a good distance away from Joburg. The protagonist is a lowly bureaucrat at MNU named Wickus Van de Merwe, who is suddenly put in charge of the operation (the MNU head honcho insists that the appointment has nothing to do with the fact that Wickus happens to be his son-in-law).
The film follows a documentary style, with pundits and experts giving their opinions and thoughts on events that have already happened, but they are sufficiently cryptic so as to not give anything away. You know that something terrible is going to happen to Wickus, but you don’t know what, and the narrative style is very effective at creating a sense of foreboding and suspense. When Wickus goes in with an armed MNU team (we are informed at some point that MNU is the world’s largest arms dealer, and basically have their own army) to deliver the eviction notices, the interactions with the aliens are tense enough as it is, but then you’re waiting for the hammer to drop as well.
The hammer drops when Wickus tries to evict an alien who has been given the name of “Christopher Johnson” (and whom I will hereafter refer to as “CJ”). CJ is smarter than the rest of the aliens, who seem to be mindless drones, and he realizes that what MNU is doing is illegal. But that’s not what makes CJ crucial to this story. Before Wickus and his team arrive, we see CJ, his son, and an unnamed (and not so bright) friend searching through junk piles for alien tech. As we learn later, the alien technology is bio-engineered to be usable only by the aliens, and apparently it contains a “fluid” (it is only ever referred to as “the fluid”) that can be converted into a fuel. CJ creates this fuel in his home laboratory and stores it in a canister, which he tells his friend to hide when they see Wickus and his team coming.
(A quick note on the narrative style here: as I mentioned above, most of the film is in documentary format, but there are naturally scenes that cannot be part of that documentary because there was no film crew around to shoot them. The switch from documentary footage to “real” scenes is completely fluid, with no overt cues to signal the change. Instead, there are subtle differences, like the level of shakiness in the camera work, but it works just fine. I noticed it the first time it happened, but it wasn’t jarring, and thereafter I never gave it a thought. So kudos to the filmmakers there, because they managed to interweave the two types of footage without it being awkward at all.)
Wickus eventually finds the canister and, while messing around with it, sprays himself with the black fluid inside. This leads to him later becoming violently ill, at first bleeding black blood from his nose and later vomiting up a black substance. Eventually his fingernails start falling off as well (this was definitely a cringe moment for me). He goes to the hospital, where it is discovered that his left arm, which he had burned and then bandaged, has turned into an alien arm, and this is where the bio-engineered alien technology comes into play. The aliens have these very advanced weapons, but they can’t be used by humans. MNU runs some tests on Wikus and determine that the human and alien DNA in his arm have been fused—or something like that. To be honest, I was a bit fuzzy on this part. The important thing, though, is that Wickus can fire the alien weapons, and MNU decides to kill him to harvest the necessary fused DNA. Again, I’m not really sure how this works—you would think that they would be able to clone an alien hand or something and use that—but if you don’t think too hard about the science, this part makes narrative sense.
At any rate, just when it looks like the end of the rope for our hapless protagonist, he summons the strength to lash out at his would-be killers (I got the impression that his new alien DNA gave him the strength, as they have been shown to be much stronger than human beings, but it’s possible that it was just an adrenaline rush). He escapes from the compound and becomes a fugitive in the city. Everyone is looking for him, and MNU releases doctored photos of him engaging in sexual acts with aliens (which is apparently supposed to explain his alien appendage, although I don’t understand how any can believe this—after all, you don’t see lonely shepherds walking around with sheep legs, do you?). He realizes that there is only one place he can go where he won’t be either hunted or shunned, and so he takes refuge in District 9. There, as expected, he is reunited with CJ, but this time the tables are turned. Wickus is no longer the oppressor, and when he shows CJ his arm, CJ tells him that it was caused by the black liquid. He also tells him that he can make him human again if only he can get back up to the mother ship. The catch is that the black liquid is the fuel needed to fly the command module (remember that thing that fell off the ship in the beginning of the film?) back up to the mother ship and then fly off—and the canister is sitting deep inside the MNU compound.
They plan an assault on MNU, and Wickus goes to a group of Nigerian thugs for weapons. These thugs generally deal with the aliens, trading them meat and cat food (to which the aliens are addicted, and which conjures up images of white settlers trading whiskey to native Americans—or at least it did for me) for the alien weaponry. Of course, they can’t use the weaponry, being human. So, like MNU, they try to find a way around this limitation. Unlike MNU, their leader eats alien body parts on the advice of his witch doctors, who tell him that doing so will imbue him with their power. When the leader discovers that Wickus has an alien arm, he tries to have it cut off, but Wickus steals some alien weaponry and blasts his way out of trouble.
Using the weapons, CJ and Wickus assault MNU, retrieve the canister, and then retreat to District 9, pursued by MNU forces. During the assault on MNU, CJ sees that MNU has been performing experiments on his fellow aliens, and when they return to District 9, he informs Wickus that he must save his people first, and only then will he return Wickus to human form. When Wickus asks him how long that will take, CJ tells him it will take three years. Hearing this, Wickus loses it and knocks CJ out. Then he takes the canister, climbs down into the command module, and tells CJ’s son that they are taking off first. Not long after the module leaves the ground, though, it is shot down by an MNU missile. Both Wickus and CJ are captured by MNU, but the Nigerians attack and take Wickus from them.
Fortunately, CJ’s son remained undetected inside the command module, and just when things are looking grim for Wickus once again, CJ’s son turns on the mothership’s power, which in turn activates an alien mecha in the Nigerian’s base. This mecha takes out the Nigerians and then allows Wickus to climb in. Now inside the mecha, Wickus engages the MNU forces, wiping out hordes of soldiers in spectacularly bloody fashion. When the mecha is damaged, Wickus flees and leaves CJ behind, but then he finally grows a pair of balls and returns to rescue his alien cohort. He stalls the remaining MNU forces so CJ can get to the command module and activate a tractor beam from the mother ship that lifts the damaged command module. Before he leaves, he promises Wickus that he will return in three years.
The military bad guy buys it at the hands of some angry aliens, who tear him limb from limb, and Wickus is never seen again. The film ends with some prognostication by the pundits—will CJ return? If he does, will he rescue his fellow aliens or just blow us to oblivion?—and a last interview with Wickus’s wife, who is holding a metal flower she found on her doorstep and which she believes is from her husband. The last shot of the film is of an alien sitting atop a junk pile crafting a metal flower.
Whew. OK, that may have been a bit tedious if the film is still fresh in your mind, but it was necessary to give me something to work with here. What will probably stand out most in the viewer’s mind are the not-so-subtle comparisons between how humans treat the aliens (known as “prawns” in the film both because they resemble crustaceans and because they are “bottom feeders”) and how humans treat other humans. And I’m sure it was not lost on anyone that the film was set in South Africa, although not everyone will be aware that District 9 is a reference to District Six, an area in Cape Town where the residents were forcibly removed during the apartheid era (I didn’t know that either until I looked it up). During the early part of the film, when the documentary crew is interviewing some of the residents of Joburg, one boy says something that really stuck with me: “If they was from another country we might understand, but they are not even from this planet.” (This and all other quotes I pulled from this PDF of the script; I don’t know if it is one hundred percent accurate, but it looks accurate enough to me.)
Bear with me here for a moment. I don’t remember exactly how old the boy was, but I do remember thinking that he looked young, and definitely under twenty. Why is that important? Because the aliens have been on earth for twenty years—they’ve been on earth longer than this boy has. I know this is the second time I have mentioned the twenty year period, but I don’t think this is an accident. The filmmakers could have easily set this film a year or two after the aliens arrived and were herded into District 9, and I bet you could have found plenty of Joburg residents to complain about their presence. But this is twenty years after they arrived, long enough for a new generation (of both humans and aliens) to be born and grow into young adulthood.
Despite this, they are still not “from” earth, even in the eyes of a boy who has spent less time on the planet than they have, and there is no way they are going to blend into the local population. It probably doesn’t help that the vast majority of the refugees seem to be uneducated worker drones who exhibit violent tendencies (CJ is the rare exception, and possibly the original pilot of the ship). I think if the aliens had looked more like us and acted more like us, we would have been much more willing to accept them. But that’s the entire point. Rather than trying to come to an understanding of beings who neither look nor act like us, we treat them with contempt and inhumanity.
Perhaps the most horrifying example of this inhumanity (that we see, at least) is perpetrated by Wickus himself. When he and his MNU team travel around District 9 serving eviction notices, they stumble upon a hive where decaying cow corpses hang from the ceiling and feed the alien eggs incubating below. The rest of the team keeps their distance, but Wickus is excited at the find. He begins to detach the feeding tubes and air tubes from the eggs, smiling all the while, but then decides that this will take too long (there are forty or fifty eggs in the small shack), so he orders his military detachment to torch the shack with a flamethrower. As the flames engulf the shack, you can hear popping sounds, and Wickus gleefully explains to the camera that this is the sound of the eggs popping, and it sounds “almost like popcorn.” I have to admit that this scene made me physical ill, and I’m feeling shadow symptoms of that just typing this.
Interestingly enough, when the team encounters CJ and his son shortly thereafter, one of the soldiers ask if he should shoot CJ’s son when the young alien starts acting up. Wickus tells him not to shoot it now, because it’s not an egg. In fact, we learn that Wickus is not completely inhumane, and is disturbed when an alien is shot (when he himself is forced to kill an alien as part of the MNU experiment later, he is traumatized). But he has no problem having his military detachment roast the eggs like so much popcorn. Why? Because he draws lines, like everyone does. We all have lines that we draw between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. It’s OK to squash a spider or kill a fly, but not to beat a puppy. I’m not going to get into why we draw these lines and how we decide where they go—the important thing is that everyone draws them. Wickus drew one when he roasted the eggs but spared the child. The young Joburg resident drew one when he said they might sympathize with other humans, but not with aliens.
What makes that line so powerful, of course, is the fact that the first clause is not true: “If they was from another country we might understand.” But we wouldn’t, and we don’t. The only thing that enables him to say that is the presence of the aliens, allowing him to draw a bigger circle (or line) that includes all humanity in “us” and leaves out the aliens as “them.” But without the aliens, without an external Other to unite us, we draw smaller circles and finer lines, just like the lines drawn in South Africa during apartheid.
I’ve actually been to South Africa. Technically I’ve been there twice, but one time we were only passing through. The other time I spent a total of about a week there, maybe a little more. This was back in 2000, and I was with a missions team from the church we attended at the time in Korea. We were on our way to Mozambique, where we spent about three weeks, but we spent a few days in Joburg and Pretoria with a local pastor before catching our flight to Beira. When the Mozambique leg of our trip was over, we went back through South Africa, and while the rest of the team caught a flight back to Korea, Hyunjin and I stayed for a while—the congress of the International Comparative Literature Association was being held in Pretoria that year, and one of my professors was presenting a paper. I decided to attend the conference since we were going to be in the area anyway.
During the first few days, when we were with the missions team, the pastor took us around to see various sights. We spent some time looking around the city proper, and although I don’t remember much in the way of details now, I do remember that parts of it and Pretoria were quite nice. But then the pastor took us to the other side of Joburg—to the township where he lived. The pastor’s house was fairly nice, but there were also houses that were little more than shacks, and these images flashed through my mind when I saw the alien shacks on the big screen. It seemed very real to me.
Probably my most abiding memory of those first few days in South Africa was when we visited a local hospital. It was called Kalafong Hospital, which means “place of healing” in the local language (Google shows an academic hospital of this name attached to the University of Pretoria, but I don’t know if it is the same one—it’s hard to imagine that the hospital we saw could be an academic hospital). Perhaps it was a place of healing, but my first impression was that it did not live up to its name. There were few doctors on hand, and the ones we did meet told us that they were short on the equipment and medicines necessary to properly treat their patients. We had brought some oranges and loaves of bread with us, and as we handed them out to the patients I felt miserable. I felt ashamed—ashamed that we were walking in with our oranges and bread like we were doing some great deed, but the next day we would be gone and nothing would have changed in the lives of these people.
The worst part of our visit to the hospital came at the end, where we stopped by the children’s ward. The children lay there in their beds with their mothers nearby—many of them looking far too young to be mothers—and I just stood there trying not to cry. Even now I have to stop every ten words to compose myself before continuing. It’s been nearly a decade since then, but I can still remember what it felt like to look into the eyes of those children. Several of the mothers asked me to pray for their children, and I did. Muano had cancer. Richard had bronchial pneumonia and heart problems. Charné, a four-year-old girl, was undergoing chemotherapy for bone cancer. How do I remember their names? I don’t—I wrote down their names and conditions in a pocket-sized notebook that I still have.
Charné in particular sticks out in my memory. I can still see her mother, a young woman who was reaching out for hope. I prayed for Charné and told her mother that I would continue to pray for her. But inside I was dying. I prayed, the words came out of my mouth, but they fell to the floor, lifeless. Perhaps I lacked faith. Perhaps I should have tried harder to pus the gloomy thoughts out of my mind. But I have never felt so helpless in my entire life. This young woman was looking to me for hope, and I was a fraud, a sham. Did I give her hope? Did it make a difference? Is Charné even still alive today? I can only hope that the answer to these question is “yes,” but I just don’t know.
I’m sorry if this has veered way off the original topic, but you have to understand that these are the things that have been buried inside me, things that were stirred up when I saw District 9. When we came back to South Africa after our time in Mozambique, we stayed at a hostel in Pretoria. During the day I went to the conference, and Hyunjin did some sightseeing. But after the first day she was afraid to go out alone after dark, and she wasn’t all that comfortable during the day, either. Apparently some young men had taunted her when she walked by, and she told me later that she felt genuinely afraid. I don’t know if she was in any real danger, or if she was simply projecting her own fears onto the situation, but even if it was the latter I can’t blame her for it.
In my memory there is a feeling of tension in the air, like when people say you could cut the tension with a knife. That’s how it felt. But was it really like that, or was I just bringing my own preconceptions to the table? It was probably a little of both. I suppose it didn’t help that when we arrived in our room on the first day, a newspaper on the table had a story about how AIDS was spreading because there was a folk belief that having sexual relations with a virgin would cure AIDS. So HIV-positive men would go around raping young girls. It was almost unbelievable, and this memory resurfaced when I saw the Nigerian gang leader eating alien body parts in an attempt to absorb their power.
What do these memories have to do with District 9? Well, they aren’t directly related to the film, but, like I said above, they were stirred up when I watched the film and helped to shape the experience. I guess “South Africa” means something a little different for everyone, but for me it is a place that is very beautiful and to which I someday hope to return, but it was also a place that was torn apart by race and is still trying to heal itself today. I remember talking to people that we met along the way—hostel owners, restaurant owners, and long-time residents, all of them white. They would bemoan the fact that their neighborhood was slowly declining as blacks moved in. They earnestly claimed that this was not racism, but reality. Only the whites were interested in maintaining institutions of culture such as theaters and libraries, and when the blacks started to move in and the whites started to move out, these cultural institutions fell into decline. I wasn’t clear on whether the whites left because the blacks were moving in or the blacks moved in because the whites were leaving, but I never bothered asking because, ultimately, I realized that it didn’t matter. What was once de jure had become de facto—I suppose if you disprivilege a portion of the population long enough, all the derogatory things that are said about that portion of the population will eventually become true. Take the idea of curing AIDS by having intercourse with a virgin. It is obvious that this superstition is born of ignorance, and the newspaper article I read ended with a desperate plea for the sex education that was so sorely lacking among those the superstition affected.
In District 9, the aliens start out with the odds against them. For starters, well, they’re alien (meaning “strange” or “foreign”) . They also look like monsters and, as one of the pundits says toward the beginning: “What for an alien might be seen as something recreational, setting fire to a truck, derailing a train, is for us obviously an extremely destructive act.” The pundit here is trying to put a sympathetic face on things, but how can you live at peace with someone who’s idea of fun is burning down your house? It seems pretty clear that, for all his sympathetic-sounding talk, he clearly has no interest in reconciling with the aliens. No attempt is made to understand why they do what they do. Is setting a truck on fire really recreational for them? If so, why? Let’s approach this question in a different way: when do we see this sort of behavior in human beings? This is generally the sort of thing we see from rebellious youth or gangs who are acting out against a system or authority that they see as repressive. Now, I’m not defending this behavior in humans, of course, I just want to point out how easy it is for everyone to simply categorize the aliens as a social ill without ever taking an interest in the causes of their behavior. After all, they are apparently a group of uneducated worker drones who have been confined to squalid conditions in a culture they don’t understand. Yet no one seems interested in addressing the root of the problem. The residents of Joburg simply want them out of sight (and thus out of mind), while MNU wants to gain the secret to their technology, no matter how many prawns they may have to kill in the process.
But this is all fairly obvious. I think you would have to be lobotomized not to see that this is the message the filmmakers are trying to get across. And yet, somehow, the film never seems preachy. In fact, I’ve read a number of reviews where critics have been disappointed that the film went heavy on the action in the second half and didn’t delve deeper into these issues. Before I get any further into that, I want to switch gears and talk about something else that I was thinking about when I was watching District 9—you know, during those moments when I wasn’t cringing at something horrific happening to the protagonist, or enjoying the action, or pondering the meaning of the alien metaphor discussed above. So, um, I guess I thought about it some at the very beginning, and then much more after the film was over.
Anyway, it just so happens that last Thursday, the day the film came out here, my friend Kevin Kim sent Gord Sellar and me an interesting article he had read: Charlie Stross’s explanation of why he hates Star Trek. This led into an interesting discussion between Kevin, Gord, and me that is still going on (and that I have put on hold temporarily so I can finish this entry—sorry for the delay, guys!), but the thing that started it all was how “technology” in Star Trek, especially The Next Generation, is little more than a gimmick. If you went to the above link and read the relatively brief post, or if you’ve ever seen ST:TNG, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about. A lot of people (including former-Trek-star-turned-geek-icon Wil Wheaton) call it “technobabble.” In a nutshell, the technology doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a plot device to get the crew out of trouble: Hey, let’s reverse the polarity on the deflector shield and reroute the energy to the warp core! Yeah, I have no idea what that means, either. But it saved the Enterprise’s crew on more than one occasion.
Our discussion of Star Trek then turned to how many episodes were very thinly veiled commentary on certain social issues—I think one example that Gord mentioned was an episode where the relationship between two races was an extremely obvious condemnation of the Holocaust. That annoyed him because the aliens were overly familiarized, removing anything that might have made them a true Other. Although I didn’t mention it at the time, it immediately made me think of what had to be a running gag among Trek fans—how all you needed to do to create a new alien species was to slap a prosthetic on their forehead (because everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads). If we extend this principle a bit, we end up with what is called a “space western.” The Turkey City Lexicon (something else that happened to enter into our conversation) gives the following tongue-in-cheek example of a space western: “The grizzled space captain swaggering into the spacer bar and slugging down a Jovian brandy, then laying down a few credits for a space hooker to give him a Galactic Rim Job.” (Sorry about that last part. This is usually a family show, but if you made it through District 9, I think you can handle a Galactic Rim Job. I mean, not actually handle one... let’s just move on.)
The point is that all of the “sci-fi elements” are nothing more than window dressing—you can substitute real-life elements one for one and no one would be the wiser. For Gord (who I should mention, by the way, is a critically acclaimed sci-fi author who almost won the prestigious Campbell award, but fell victim to a nefarious plot by stealthy space spies who reversed the polarity to the deflector shield and rerouted the award), real science-fiction is that in which the future/space/alien elements are not just gimmicks, but have an actual impact on the story. You shouldn’t just be able to swap out these elements for non sci-fi elements—they should fundamentally change the way the plot unfolds. (I really hope I’m getting Gord’s position right here—he’s a rather nuanced fellow, and it’s possible I’m misrepresenting him. At any rate, this is what I took away from the discussions, so that’s all the really matters for what will follow.)
I went into District 9 knowing the basic conceit—that aliens had come to earth and were living as refugees in Joburg. So before the film even started, I had a pretty good idea of what the message was going to be, or at least what part of the message was going to be. And I couldn’t help thinking about our discussion of Star Trek and space westerns. Would District 9 simply be another space western, with aliens standing in for those oppressed under apartheid? I desperately hoped not. I wanted it to be something more than that. As it turned out, I think it was something more than that. When Wickus is infected and begins to turn into an alien, there is no longer any one-to-one correspondence with real historical events. The clueless oppressor is becoming what he once oppressed. To put it a little differently, he is becoming the Other.
Now, this is something that is just not possible in real life. The Other is, by definition, something foreign, and it will always remain foreign. You can become more familiar with it, and you can adapt to it, but you can never become it. What about immigrants who move to another country and assimilate there? Well, I would argue that first-generation immigrants never really assimilate. It isn’t until the second generation that the family truly becomes a part of that culture. I’ve lived in Korea for fourteen years now, and I am a denizen of this country (which means that I have permanent residency, but I just like saying “denizen”). But even if I should spend the rest of my days here, and even if I became a Korean citizen, I would never become Korean. It’s impossible. No matter how familiar I may become with the Other here, it will always remain the Other.
And yet this is precisely what appears to happen to Wickus, and it doesn’t happen over a long period of time, it happens over a span of a few days (we don’t know how long the transformation takes to complete, but we do know that Wickus has very little time to come to terms with what is happening to him). At first he denies what is happening to him, and then he does everything in his power to reverse the process. When CJ tells him that it will be three years before he can make him wholly human again, Wickus at first tries to do things himself. When he fails, though, and it becomes apparent that neither of them are going to make it if he doesn’t do something, he decides to sacrifice himself to give CJ a chance to escape. He survives, but he loses the chance to become human again (at least for the time being, we have to assume), and transforms completely into an alien.
But I don’t think that we can simply say he turns into the Other and leave it at that. The end of the film is important. His wife is holding a delicately crafted metal flower, saying how her friends tell her to throw it away because it is junk, but she knows that it is from Wickus. And in the last scene, we see an alien, presumably Wickus, fashioning another flower out of metal. It is shocking scene because the transformation is now complete and what was once human is now alien. But Wickus the alien has obviously retained much of his human personality. Never do we see aliens other than CJ doing anything constructive, let alone artistic, but here he is meticulously working metal. He also remembers his relationship with his wife, and can obviously still feel love for her. So what is he? Is he a human trapped inside an alien body? Is he an alien with vestigial traces of human memory? What does it even mean to be human or alien? These questions lead us back to the beginning, before Wickus was infected. The final image not only delivers the shock of seeing Wickus as an alien, it reinforces the fundamental message of the film: that our prejudices are based on an obstinate refusal to see past the surface and truly understand the Other.
Now I suppose I should go back and talk about the criticism that District 9 abandons its ideas for action in the second half. This may put me firmly with the hoi polloi, but I have to say that I really enjoyed the action. If you don’t enjoy watching a mecha run around turning bad guys into bloody goo, you’re probably taking life a little too seriously. The action also serves as something of a cathartic release of the tension that’s been building up. And the fact that all of the technology Wickus uses is alien is not lost on us, either. I have to wonder what exactly these critics wanted to see in the second half of the film. The filmmakers somehow managed to get across a very obvious message without making us feel like we were being hit over the head with it—I think delving too deeply into the implications of that message might have worn us out. I suppose they could have dealt more seriously with the implications of Wickus turning into an alien, but again I think it would have weighed down the film. I though the pacing worked very well, and the slower build-up in the beginning was balanced out by the action at the end.
Which isn’t to say that District 9 is perfect. There are a number of flaws, some of which Gord and I have already discussed. One of them is how unconvincing the “biotechnology” was. With the exception of the controls for the command module, which involved Wickus having to stick his hands into pots of goo, all the other weapons and technology simply looked like normal weapons and technology (albeit science-fictiony). If they were really bio-engineered, you would think that they would somehow become a part of the body, at least temporarily, or that there would be some difference from conventional weaponry. Oh, and this is something I just thought of while I was writing the above paragraph—for a mecha originally designed for much larger alien bodies, that thing fit Wickus like a glove.
Something else that didn’t quite work for me was the exact nature of the aliens. This is a little bit harder to explain, but I had a hard time understanding exactly who the aliens were and why they would have all this advanced weaponry if they weren’t going to use it. It is explained why the ship can’t move (the command module fell out of the ship), but we don’t know why the ship is filled with aimless drones—no leaders, no military, no nothing. When I was watching the film, my first instinct was that they were unwanteds, or actual refugees fleeing from their home planet. This was probably because of the similarities to a dark shipping container that I mentioned above. But that wouldn’t explain why they have all this advanced weaponry. Truth be told, though, I didn’t think about much of this while watching the film—it wasn’t until after that I began to wonder. But there are a lot of questions left unansweered.
One of those questions is what will happen three years later when CJ and company return? Gord postulated that Wickus had actually killed humanity when he helped CJ escape, because it was obvious that when he returned he would wipe us out. I wasn’t so convinced, but it is true that all options are mentioned at the end of the film: “There's no way of knowing whether or not Christopher Johnson will return. We don't know if he was simply escaping, whether he will effect a rescue plan... or, as the so called ‘Free Press’ says, whether or not he will come back and declare a war on us.” The more I think about it, the more I don’t know what will happen. I never could be sure if CJ actually intended to fulfill his promise to reverse Wickus’s transformation, but it seemed toward the end that he genuinely intended to keep his word. I think the filmmakers deliberately tried to contrast CJ with most of the human characters, including Wickus, and I think having him come back to destroy earth would undermine that. In a nutshell, the aliens served a very specific purpose in terms of the message, and they were designed to make us feel a certain way (even if that “certain way” was ambiguous). For this reason, I think they might not be completely internally consistent in narrative terms. I think I would have to see the film again to comment any further, though.
Despite its flaws, though, not all of which I’ve named here (in part because I think I’ve gone on long enough), I loved this film. Now that I’ve gone and written this “review,” I think I can say for certain that it is my favorite film of the year. That’s a hard call to make, because some of the other films I’ve seen this year have been very good in their own way (Star Trek was the big spectacle/nostalgia blast, while Coraline was delightful both for its animation and folklore elements, and Up was Pixar at its best), but no film affected me nearly as much as District 9. There are probably other issues I could discuss here, but I’m going to quit while I’m ahead and just give District 9 two thumbs way up.