District 9 is a throwback of a movie. Yes, there’s lots of explosions, and special effects, neat CGI aliens, and of course the now obligatory giant hovering ship (remember when space ships used to actually land?); but it is in many ways a throwback to the thinking man’s scifi movies of the 50s/60s. It manages to be two movies in one, on one level the big blockbuster you expect, but at the same time it’s a very small personal film.
The main hero/antihero of the movie, isn’t really played up in the trailers, so I was surprised just how much this was a movie about one man. He’s not your usual space cowboy, not a tough space marine or anything you’ve come to expect in this sort of summer blockbuster sci-fi flick. In fact, he’s just this sort of mid-level cubicle bureaucrat, who plows his way through his job with somewhat questionable motives and competence. He’s light years from being the gun-toting, hard as nails, take-no-prisioners iconic Ripley from the Aliens Movie. Yet there’s some odd parallels, right down to a kick-ass body suit that helps our hero/antihero bring down the bad guy and the transformation of an “everyday joe” to a armored protector of family and child. Yet here the roles are reversed, you have the hero fighting off evil humans to protect aliens.
The movie borrows heavily from other movies, though I’d hate to say borrow so much as it uses the language of the genre to help move things along. There’s the alien slum and aliens living uneasily among us (Alien Nation), there’s the menacing hovering giant ship (Independence Day), the human/alien enemy to buddy act (Enemy Mine) and the aforementioned body armor (Aliens). It also borrows heavily from the fake documentary style for a gritty realism and grounding, as well as the home movie shaky camera immediacy of movies like Cloverfield. Surprisingly though, if anything ,these references help us to set up what we expect this movie to be, so that it eventually can take these twists and turns, play off and play with our own expectations, then turn them on their head, and in the end move on to tell it’s own story. Movies always use the language of our collective movie-going experience, I’ve always admired the ones that can do that well.
To it’s credit, it quickly handles the shock and awe of encountering an alien species and fast-forwards 20 years. It sets us how the news cycle and pop culture embraced the aliens, but how quickly they became “prawns” a dehumanizing derogatory term based on their looks, and their foraging habits. It paints just how much people can get used to, where everyone lives in a world where aliens aren’t really news anymore, they’ve been quartered off into a slum – sound familiar? However, there are whole economies at work here as well, criminal as well as this whole government/weapons complex that develops around the aliens and their secrets.
Of course you can’t miss the racial and immigration issues it raises. In many respects the movie is a critique on how we treat those who are not like us, how we “dehumanize” those that are different. I was particularly stuck by how brutal and even monstrous some of the scenes around the evictions were. (After 20 years the aliens are being moved to a more out of the way, more politically-expedient settlement camp. Though we’ve all seen these techniques they use. There’s intimidation through violence, police brutality, prejudice and bigotry, forcing individuals to defend themselves so you can shoot them, even threatening to call child custody to take away children, hiding behind legalities, all these were in people’s playbooks long before the aliens showed up. Just setting it in South Africa reminds us of what’s at stake.
One of the most effective and terrifying scenes in the movie, comes from human against human violence. This shocking and disturbing twist where someone crosses that line to become no longer human but a “specimen” only an object for study for the above mentioned soulless government/weapons complex. This subject is tied to a gurney where he’s being discussed with some excitement and detail about just how he’s about to be sliced and diced for valuable (as in money making) scientific research. You see this one hand keep reaching out for someone that used to be a coworker, friend, and family member, only to realize that no one, even this person, is about to show a drop of humanity. In many ways though this movie is about those sort of turn of events. How people go from being seen one way then another, how people are perceived and defined. At a deeper level though, and to the movies credit, it is also ultimately about how we see ourselves, and are capable of dramatic internal transformations as well. The movie in the end comes down to the battle between being human and inhuman, what motivates us — but in that larger sense that has nothing to do with being from earth. It’s all about how we treat each other and who we are inside.