A few days after King Kong coming off Netflix, District 9 was also set to be removed. This is a Peter Jackson -produced film about aliens, set in the near future (of 2009, as the movie is already ten years old). It was a feature-length remake of a five-minute short film called Alive in Joburg by director Neill Blomkamp. Blomkamp was working with Jackson on a Halo -based film but, when that didn’t come to fruition, Blomkamp proposed to make District 9.
Mercifully, I read nothing about the movie before I watched it. I only knew it had good reviews. For some reason, I also thought it was related to the TV series Colony, about which I also saw good reviews. I decided that I would first watch District 9 and then Colony. When I found out the connection was all in my head, I ended up watching neither. Nevertheless, the link between the two remained in my imagination.
With that background, the “twists” of the District 9 story were all a surprise to me. I’ll try not to give away too much here, but no guarantees. If you want to watch it without my bias, go watch it – you’ll likely find it worth your while. Netflix’s rating system suggested that, while the average review was 3.6 stars, I would rank it 4.7 stars out of 5. That is probably a little over-ambitious, but I think they have correctly identified that this is “my kind of film.”
The format mixes mockumentary-style presentation with what might be meant to look like “found footage.” In this case, the “find” seems to consist of both used and cut material from the makings of a TV documentary special. For example, some scenes are shown using body cams or surveillance cameras. At the same time, other scenes are show using conventional camera techniques. As the viewer, we are to place ourselves in a world where an alien spacecraft has been hovering over Johannesburg for the last 25 years or so, and yet it is a world otherwise of our own present day.
Many have read deeper meaning into the film. Certainly the location and the story’s premise leads one to see parallels with apartheid. A key plot point is also formed around the “smart gun” technology of alien weapons. We see that there are restrictions on weapons (and technology in general) as well as open and flagrant violations of those restrictions. We also have the multinational corporation contracted to privately handle traditional governmental functions, like security. That results in another plot where the secret motivations and methods of said corporation (conveniently, Multi-National United) are exposed.
But is it allegory or is it just a splatter film*? While the references to South African history are obvious**, is there really any message about the politics of South Africa to be found in the story? Similarly the themes of guns and corporations. While the ideas are there, are they presented in a way that is supposed to talk to us about our current (or at least, 2009) societal problems? Does that fact that the government tries to seize illegal guns and fails argue for or against gun control? Is it even supposed to be an argument?
The one theme that is clearly part of the movie and intended to be is what I talked about with King Kong. As the movie progresses, the audience comes to identify with the aliens (prawns, as one of their nicknames has it) as the sympathetic characters of the film. Even our main character transitions away from being a pathetic anti-hero. He becomes someone we can respect as he also becomes less human and more alien. Unlike King Kong, we do not see human civilians being killed by the prawns. Worst case, the privatized army of Multi-National United get shot back at after they have already initiated the aggression. At the end, we’re left with a vague hint that we don’t really know the intention of the aliens. Maybe shortly (3 years?) after the film ends, the prawns will return and destroy us all. Maybe not. In that ambiguity we find ourselves free to take the side of the “other” over the human race.
*A new term I learned this week, specifically referring to Peter Jackson’s early works.
**1982 is the arrival date of the alien spaceship. This also happens to be the end date of the District Six relocation project, where 60,000 non-whites were forceably relocated from the Cape Town neighborhood to Cape Flats and designated areas. Are there supposed to be implications about the resolution of the South African racial problems in the face of a new “other?”