In a hot summer of universe-trotting, alien-centric battling blockbusters, one looks to other genres than science fiction for the smallest trace of intellectual, ethical, or even emotional gravity. But in a bad economy, independent film funds dry up, and great scripts shrivel on the vine. Infected with financial anxiety, major movie studios hesitate to take dramatic risks in the theater. They order tent pole films that sell seats on the promissory note of a cheap thrill. In this climate, the robotic fantasies of thirteen-year-old boys rule the cinema—and the content of these films is something less than cerebral. In August, at the seasonal peak of all this Adornian prophetic depravity, along comes director Neill Blomkamp—a sort of messianic director who promises to bridge the gap between blockbuster drudge and artistically legitimate filmmaking.
His film, District 9, is a dark drama that flips the familiar “alien raider” story on its head. Gone is the “Independence Day” shoot-em-up utopia, where militaries roll out tank battalions and fighter jets to stop aliens who fixate on wiping the White House (and other cenotaphs of the American spirit) off the face of the planet. Instead, human beings are the ones who threaten, incarcerate, and brutalize the aliens who seem to have arrived on our tiny planet by pure accident. Rather than landing like Vikings in New York City with the usual thunder and plunder, they assume the role of hapless refugees in Joburg, South Africa. This nuance separates District 9 from its more orthodox Syfy cousins.
Not only does the film perform the difficult duty of innovating its rather vintage genre, but it also makes a controversial political commentary. Placing a film about detainment and racism in South Africa necessarily evokes the analogy of Apartheid. Apartheid (Afrikaans for separateness or apart-hood) is the term for institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa—a segregation that lasted nearly half a century (1948-1991) and produced rebellious luminaries like Nelson Mandela. The marketing campaign for District 9 (e.g. signs on bus stops barring non-humans, beaches restricted to human use only) eerily reminds one of pre-civil rights America. But I hesitate to applaud the film for using this emotional history to mobilize its own thematic purposes. In an exploitative move, District 9 tempts us to think, but fails to deliver on that seduction. Blomkamp, a white South African born in 1979, should probably know better.
Paradoxically, in his world of foreign detainees, there is very little room for natives—that is to say, very little room for humanity. The white protagonist, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharto Copley), is an over-eager, nepotistic klutz who never quite loses his selfish streak. Although ostensibly anti-segregation, the film operates on the same racial stereotypes that inspire segregation in the first place. For example, the most prominent black figure in the film is pagan Nigerian gangster who ritualistically consumes flesh (at the behest of his witch doctor), believing this practice will transform him into an alien himself. I can’t help but imagine that the white Afrikaners who hated the blacks during Apartheid had a similar caricature in their head of all black Africans. Mandela would cringe at the cartoonish felon. Blomkamp acts incautiously with the most powerful white figure as well (who is not the protagonist, as one might expect, but a quintessential Dutch brute, complete with goatee, uncontrollable temper, and hand grenades). He and his military force are at odds with both the Nigerians and aliens. Eventually, the situation explodes. Literally.
For this reason, the latter part of the film devolves into a juvenile action flick. Explosions aren’t bad in themselves, but the director could have spent less time nuking bad guys and more time delving into their emotional and intellectual motivations. We don’t know why the Nigerians gangsters are gangsters, nor why the Dutch brutes want to shoot every Nigerian, alien, or hybrid race they see. He keeps the characters at a distance. We know nothing “real” about them. The white protagonist himself helps the aliens not out of concern for their wellbeing but out of an intense desire to be rid of them. And only when they could offer him something does he try to help. The alien internment camps are the spitting image of black South African shanty camps. Is this how Blomkamp sees racial integration?
One can chalk this negligence up to studio interference, historical ignorance, or laziness, but no speculation will excuse the fact that the film has a subversive underbelly. Segregation is never quite condemned—only pseudo-excused by vacuous caricatures of humanity. Although historically messy, District 9 is nonetheless exciting, and the summertime moviegoer is far better off sitting under two hours of Blomkamp’s apocalyptic imagination than attending the virtual pogrom blasting through the next-door theater’s walls. If that’s not explicit enough; I’m publicly condemning Transformers 2.
Jason Harper is the film editor for Wunderkammer.
Images courtesy TriStar films.