Sunday, August 16, 2009

District 9

I saw District 9 with P-Doug and G yesterday. I was impressed with it and enjoyed it thoroughly. Aside from Disney/Pixar's Up, it's one of the few movies I've seen this year that wasn't disappointing.

Set in 2010, District 9 postulates an alternate history, in which aliens arrive at Earth in the early 1980s, at Johannesburg in South Africa (a nice change from the typical L.A. or Washington, and the movie itself makes a point of saying so, provoking a smile and a wink from me). Like in the movie Alien Nation (which was, of course, set in California), the beings on the ship are workers. Unlike Alien Nation, these aliens don't look especially human and don't simply merge into the community to become slick and enthusiastic wanna-be Americans (or in this case, South Africans). They become just what one would really expect: slum-dwelling refugees eking out a crude living, barely suffered to live by the humans around them and authorities over them (in some cases, not suffered to live at all).

The aliens are portrayed as, by and large, uneducated and unsophisticated, either easily duped by human authorities or fearful and suspicious of them. Not unintelligent, just out of their depths. Humans, wondering at the disparity between the advanced technology of the aliens (called by the epithet "prawns" throughout the movie) and the relative simpleness of the aliens themselves, speculate that a ruling class on the ship had somehow been lost. Despite the fact that they are larger than humans and physically stronger, it becomes clear that they have become a form of prey for humanity: they have a biologically-keyed weapons technology that humanity cannot operate but, of course, covets.

Enter Wikus van der Merwe, played deftly by Sharlto Copley. Wikus is a young administrator, obviously in over his head, put in charge of the forced relocation of the alien population of 1.8 million because he is the boss's son-in-law. Wikus is a bumbler; a nice guy who's deliberately not quite as sharp as the audience, who quickly see the convenient holes in his moral fabric (and by extension, that of the society in which he lives). The audience is witness to some appalling acts of cruelty on the part of Wikus, which he himself, in his ignorance, sees as simple light-hearted hi-jinx. In the course of the movie, a transformation comes over him — one aspect of it physical, one spiritual — that ironically make him both less, and more, fully human. This is at the heart of the movie. There's no missing that this is, at the bottom of it all, a comment on the rot that Apartheid set into the soul of white South Africa.

Wikus first persecutes, and then later befriends (at first provisionally, then finally sincerely), an alien re-dubbed Christoper by the authorities. Christopher, it turns out, has a far better grasp of things than most of his fellow aliens; he is portrayed as more sophisticated and sensitive, somewhat unprepared for what he is forced to learn about humanity during the movie. He and his young son become the key to the full blossoming of Wikus's humanity — but only after Wikus breaks faith with Christopher on more than one occasion. The movie times Wikus's redemption perfectly: it occurs at the very moment the audience finally gaves up on Wikus and is about to lose all sympathy for him. Only at this moment does Wikus finally come to understand what he can and cannot do.

The movie ends with appropriate question marks, as it should, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions and speculate about the consequences. I really hope they don't make a sequel; the movie makes its points forcefully and effectively, and anything more would honestly be gratuitous.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this District 9 and not least of all the fact that the "hero" is mostly disagreeable until he substantially transforms right near the end. I think he's quite an unlikeable character. He reminded me of that quote from Hannah Arendt in reference to the Third Reich: "The banality of evil."
And for once, I wouldn't mind if a sequel were made. I have so many unanswered questions at the end of this film. But I also hope it's left as is.