This film is a work of fiction.
All characters,events and situations in this film are fictional and imaginary.Any resemblance to any person living or dead or with any similar real life event or situation is entirely coincidental and unintentional
Here I would like to strongly recommend Christopher Nolan’s science fiction film called Interstellar, which is themed on the near future when human beings are at the brink of extinction due to severe scarcity of resources on Earth. In order to figure out the way to save mankind, a team of scientists were sent into the mysterious space using the last spaceship mankind can ever sustain. After a series of life-threatening events and the loss of companies, the main character---Cooper, starred by Matthew McConaughey, succeeded to send vital data back to Earth through the fifth dimension created by unknown forces, which eventually led to the survival of all mankind. I have been expecting this movie ever since the announcement, simply because it is directed by my favorite director Christopher Nolan. Just like any other movies he made, in this film he again utilized the magnificent and overpowering sound effect and music. Another reason why I like this movie is the stubbornness of Christopher Nolan in digital production and his effort in minimizing the amount of computer-generated imagery for special effects in his film.
Part I - Post-colonialism and South Africa
The narrator of the “documentary” in the film District 9 describes the aliens’ landing over Johannesburg as a “surprise” to everyone, since normally you would expect this to happen “over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago”. The choice of this location is the first step in separating this film apart from all the other alien invasion films. And as we investigate it further, we can discover the political intention behind this peculiar yet pivotal move.
It all goes back to the director Neill Blomkamp, who is a native South African himself. He, by choosing to set this film in his native country, looks beyond the science fiction nature of the alien genre and tries to evoke the racially segregated past of South Africa. This starts with the title of the film, District 9, a clear reference to District 6, a Cape Town neighborhood that was demolished following the enforcement of the apartheid policy. The non-white people inhabiting in that district were evicted due to the neighborhood’s proximity to the city center, which is the exact circumstance under which the eviction of the aliens in the film happens. Following these two observations, we can grasp the film’s intention of analogizing the non-white people to the aliens, evoking some of deficiencies of apartheid that may otherwise be controversial.
The aliens here stand in for the oppressed race and ethnicities. This film successfully exploits human being’s long-standing indifference for other species to make the segregation and oppression of the aliens seem justifiable and reasonable at first. The plot takes a big turn when narrative shifts from the perspective of humans to the perspective of the aliens, revealing the “humanity” of those creatures. This change of perspective is profoundly impactful and relates to the theories of post-colonialism. According to Shohat and Stam, modern cinema was at first used to “document the tentacular extensions of empire”(104). It explored the new “geographical, ethnographic and archeological territories” from the eyes of the Europeans(104). The spread of colonialism and imperialism makes cinema a great tool for promulgating the self-righteousness of the Euro-Americans, making the indigenous people “invaders in their own land”(123). The problem with this colonialist view is that it lacks a perspective from the indigenous people, internalizing this imperialist “gaze” on those foreign lands and self-proclaiming the right to own them. District 9 differs from the other alien films in that the aliens are no longer the incomprehensible, inhumane “other” who kill and destroy without any justifications. They now have a voice and a mind that we have access to. Their way of thinking largely resembles that of human beings so that we can sympathize with these creatures.
In this attempt to humanize the aliens, some of us are able to identify with them even though they may be a completely different species. And this is what this film tries to achieve --- it reminds us of the often neglected other side of coin and sheds a fresh light on the colonized and apartheid past of South Africa. The irony lies in some of the similar approaches we take in treating other human beings and a different species altogether --- segregation, eviction and brutality. This film thus could be considered a great post-colonial piece of cinema reflecting on the colonial past and presenting us with the alternative perspective that the western colonists and intellectuals alike lacked for centuries.
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Part II - Genre Analysis
District 9 is a refreshing reinvention of a traditional genre, reversing some of the conventional elements while putting some novel styles into the mix.
First, it is considered an “alien invasion” film. Its difference from the more traditional alien invasion films is that the aliens in this one has no intention whatsoever of invading the earth, rather, they came to the earth purely by accident. The benevolent nature of the arrival of the aliens demands a completely different approach on human’s behalf. In the more conventional alien films, the aliens are often represented as an evil creature with a violent nature that leave the humans no choice but to eradicate them one way or another. Such notable films as the Alien series, Independence Day and War of the Worlds all belong to this category. District 9, on the other hand, while maintaining the physical and some of the behavioral differences, reveals the inner common ground between the aliens and the humans. Such human virtues as friendship, parenthood and the longing for home can be seen among the aliens throughout the film. On the contrary, human beings in this film are generally portrayed as ruthless and profit-seeking, conducting biological experiments on the aliens and attempting to make profits from Wikus, the central character who gradually transforms into an alien. Soldiers destroy the “eggs” of the aliens and kill the aliens for their own pleasure. All in all, this film depicts a world where people are mostly xenophobic and uncaring, creating a role reversal in the traditional alien invasion genre and by doing that, subverting the established view on the “other” creatures and making us reflect on our own actions.
However, these characteristics all bear a striking resemblance with another film, E.T. In that film, the alien is also given a voice and a genuine human quality. The scientists are also more interested in the scientific experiments than establishing an effective communication between the two species. But the difference lies in some of the stylistic elements in the two films, which may seem trivial at first but have a huge influence in the way the audience perceive these films. Sony Pictures, the distributor of District 9, launched a viral marketing strategy, putting signs saying “humans only” on the streets and creating a “hotline” for people to report “non-human” activities. These marketing strategies are created in order to make people aware of the “seriousness” and “realistic” qualities of the films. They are only enhanced by the film’s extensive use of “documentary footages”, interviewing fictional intellectuals to make the whole event seem all the more real. Media coverage of the entire event is present throughout the film, eliminating some of the traditional characteristics of genre films, namely the simplification of social relationships and the exclusion of other intervening social forces. Indeed, the media does not only exist in this film, it plays an active role in turning the public against Wikus as well. By reporting the fabricated story of Wikus having sexual intercourse with an alien, the government successfully makes the entire city unsafe for Wikus to stay in. This gives the audience an idea of what the media is capable of, making the film a critique of media as well. The “alien-rights” group is also present in the film. Although they did not make any substantial impact, the inclusion of such a group reflects the film’s intention in putting the entire story under a realistic societal context.
E.T., on the other hand, does not put any of those elements in its plot, making it almost an isolated story happening to a selected group of people. And since the societal context of the film does not resemble that of our own, in which media and other intervening forces play a vital role, the audience is inclined to take it less seriously. Thus even within the science fiction genre, District 9 sets itself apart in its exhaustive effort in creating vivid and operating social relationships that the real-life society possesses. And in this way this film is taken more seriously than the majority of other sci-fi movies.
We can then conclude by saying that District 9 regroups the syntax of the alien-invasion sub-genre by creating a role reversal between the humans and the aliens and adds some interesting elements to the semantics of the science fiction genre such as documentary and media reports. It successfully breaks conventions and creates its own unique narrative, which result in its commercial and critical success.
Part III - Racial and Class Representations
As I discussed earlier, the film cleverly uses aliens as a metaphor for the non-white races, addressing issues relating to the apartheid era and colonialism and evading its potential controversies. Ironically it still stirs controversy in precisely its ethnic representation as the degrading portrayal of the Nigerians leads the film to be banned in that country.
First of all district 9 is a special section designated only for aliens. On the fences surrounding the district, there are signs saying “No Humans Allowed”. Yet the Nigerians live exactly in this place where supposedly only aliens can live, not secretly, but publicly. The government, while strictly prohibiting any humans to enter district 9, does not seem to be bothered by the presence of the Nigerians at all. The exact circumstances of the Nigerians moving into the district and the reasons behind the government’s inaction are unexplained in the film. We can only assume that either the Nigerians have a strong political power to keep them there or the government simply does not consider them as normal human beings anymore. Second, the Nigerians’ goal in the district is to somehow manage to possess the aliens’ biological structures in order to use the hugely destructive alien weapons. They don’t want to be humans after all. And they try to achieve that by using violence, intimidation, witchcraft and prostitution. They are willing to forego humanity in their pursuit for destructive power. Third, this is not just one of them. The group consists of at least ten of them and they are being referred to as “the Nigerians”. This is such a damaging situation when the people of an entire country is being represented in a whole by a group of thugs and prostitutes. Fourth, to add on that, in my genre analysis I point out the “more serious” approaches this film takes than most of the other sci-fi movies, thus making this portrayal of “the Nigerians” even more troublesome than some equally racist characterizations in, say, a cartoon.
All of these aspects make this inconsiderate portrayal of “the Nigerians” a huge disappointment in an otherwise innovative and creative film. Some argue that the depiction of white people in this film are equally negative so it should be exempted from being racist. But I should argue that the white characters in this film are definitely not considered as a group and they all have differing personalities. They can be distinctively heroic or villainy or just simply bland, whereas the Nigerians as a group are being portrayed as evil and inhumane, mostly without any distinctions among them.
This leads us to another issue, class. Different classes coexist in this movie. The upper class is represented by Wikus’ father-in-law, an MNU leader. When Wikus’ is dear and of use to his family, he arranges his daughter’s marriage and promotes Wikus on that account. But when Wikus starts transforming into an alien, he uses the media to defame Wikus and is able to use military power to fight against him. Basically, he has enormous political, military and social influence. The Nigerians, in comparison, have nothing but a limited amount of weaponry. When we come back to the reason they are in district 9, it can thus be confirmed that the government simply abandons them there in a way since it definitely has the power to remove them if it wants to. And for these social outcasts who do not even have a job, they need to find an alternative way out. That may be part of the reason why they moved to district 9 and started dealing with the aliens and seeking supernatural powers.
Wikus, whom the audience is supposed to identify with, is a typical middle-class man. He is not very intelligent, a bit clumsy and not charismatic at all to become a leader. However, as he gradually transforms into an alien, he ironically becomes a better “person” as he fights off the soldiers spectacularly to make sure the aliens can get back home at the end. This film, thus, can still be seen as the struggle of a middle-class white man fighting off his fear to become a stronger person for love. And it still largely appeals to mainly white, male, middle-class and heterosexual audiences in this concern.
To conclude, despite all the creativity with genres, this film is still pretty conservative, even occasionally offensive when it comes to racial and class representations, appealing mostly to the same audiences other traditional films do.
Ella Shohat. Robert Stam. “Unthinking Eurocentrism”. New York: Routledge.