I think most sf fans can agree that the genre is at its best when its about something. We want to see imagination soar and be transplanted to somewhere new and unexpected, but we also want to learn a bit about the society we live in or ourselves. District 9 struck a chord with people because it was an imaginative and original film that was clearly about race, refugees and apartheid. There’s a lot to like about this movie, and it is entertaining. But, when it comes down to the social message, I think it missed the point…and quite badly.
In 1982, an alien ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. The haunting images of the hovering ship are by far my favorite part of the movie. The aliens inside, rather than glowing beings bound to save humanity, are dirty, starving and impoverished. The South African government transfers them to camps, where they continue to live, uncomfortably segregated from humans in something akin to the apartheid that segregated the black majority from South African society until the 1990s. The film picks up in the modern day with South African bureaucrats working in one of the alien refugee camps (the titular District 9). One of them, Wikus, is exposed to alien chemicals that make him a wanted man in both the human and alien communities.
The film starts out as a faux documentary. In fact, it plays out a lot like the UK version of The Office, and Wikus owes a lot to David Brent. One of my minor complaints is that the documentary style seems to fade in and out. This inconsistency makes it look like a cheap narrative trick – a way to get out some exposition that’s quickly abandoned whenever it’s inconvenient. It does work much of the time though. There’s a lot to like about the film overall. Sharlto Copley’s performance is great, the effects are fantastic (especially at a tenth the budget of Star Trek or Avatar), and it really is original.
However, I do have some problems with the presentation of the central analogy, and these problems were serious enough that they kept me from enjoying the film. Nicole Stamp caused a bit of a stir with this blog post, but I think she expressed a lot of what I felt about the film. If you’re going to make a comparison between these aliens and African victims of apartheid, it’s problematic to portray the aliens as violent and disgusting. It’s even more problematic if almost all of the few actual Africans in the movie are also violent and disgusting. I’m not saying writer/director Neill Blomkamp is racist – just that he could have been more sensitive in his portrayal of Africans and more nuanced in the presentation of the analogy.
Actually, you could make the point that the white characters don’t come off any better – there are brutal white scientists and bureaucrats throughout. The fact that the characters fit so nicely into stock roles and stereotypes is still an issue. Also, the fact that almost all of the characters are equally despicable highlights a deeper problem here. I don’t think you can convey a message in a movie this unremittingly dark, vicious and gross. The aliens are so violent and disgusting, and the humans are so violent and disgusting, that I didn’t really care all that much if they all just brutally murdered each other. If you want to portray a humanist message, I think you need some sense of human (or alien) worth. The film borders on nihilism, and nihilism isn’t likely to inspire social change.