District 9 & Sci-Fi Politics

Posted: February 6, 2010 in Binoy Kampmark
Tags: , ,

District 9

DVD: District 9 (Two-Disc Edition)
Blu-ray: District 9

See also:

District 9 (2009)
District 9 (2009) – Sci Fi Action With Brains and Soul
District 9 (2009) – Science Fiction of the Now

District 9 & Sci-Fi Politics
Binoy Kampmark

A sci-fi B-Film that punches above its weight. So argued Anthony Quinn of The Independent (Sep 4, 2009) on the South African spectacular District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp. Certainly, it is a refreshing change from such overly done efforts as the Transformers series and Terminator with their tedious super effect twaddle that does little to inspire. Nor will viewers be left wondering about the special effects in this production – Peter Jackson made sure he peppered this work with a fair assortment of them.

The scene is Johannesburg, where an impressive object from space has positioned itself above the city like a suspended tomb for twenty years. Investigations subsequently reveal a species of starving, proletarian like creatures who might well have been abandoned by their masters. They settle in what becomes District 9. Their incompatibility with human residents becomes a problem. Calls for their removal and relocation gather force.

Sharlto Copley is more than able in the role of Wikus Van De Merwe, the ferret-like, blindingly callous officer who leads the eviction. Importantly, he contracts the virus that commences the mutation process. Thus, we have the familiar transformation of the enemy into oneself, the Heart of Darkness that transforms the outsider looking in. The transformed heart converts Wikus, who suffers isolation, and eventually turns to resistance in solidarity with the disaffected aliens. The effect is perhaps more potent than the director intends, and we have, in Wikus, a suitable modern statement of contemporary prejudices.

The true victims here are the aliens, who are rubbished, reviled and operated upon. They are wedged between opportunistic scientists and officials of a corporatised-military entity, MNU, who see potential in their exploitation. Nigerian criminals who fancy making a profit from their weakness for, amongst other things, cat food, also feature. They also traffic in inter-species sex and cannibalism. Such a depiction has enraged Nigerian officials, who see this as a slur on their nation’s character. Dora Akunyili, Nigeria’s Information Minister, had no fond words for the film after a preview. ‘The film clearly denigrated Nigeria’s image by portraying us as if we are cannibals… and criminals’ (Variety, Sep 28, 2009). A few commentators have jumped on this as an unduly racist depiction. Take Carina Ray’s account in the New African (Dec 2009). ‘Hollywood might overlook the film’s racism, but we cannot.’

Leaving aside the sensitivities of such viewers, questions remain. Given that the ANC is the force in power in 2009, are we having a replication, a recurrence of the oppressive, racist structures, only this time against the prawns? Prejudice, terrestrially grounded, assumes an extra-terrestrial focus. But that might have been a topic too incendiary to contemplate. Instead, we have traditional monsters and bogeymen of the South African Security establishment, portrayed through a privatized security format reminiscent of Blackwater. The eviction is led by whites, and the military and police officials, while peopled by black servicemen, is dominated by brutal white figures.

For that reason, Blomkamp leaves us in the dark. We are left with snippets of historical cliché with strikingly relevant contemporary resonance. We can ponder about privatized wars, refugees and racism.

The strengths in this dystopian account are undeniable, even if the director has left much to the audience to ponder. One wonders what might have been done with a larger budget, but perhaps the essential grittiness might have been lost. Instead, audiences can contemplate such delicious ironies as that of a black South African woman, who makes the following observation: ‘At least they’re keeping them separate from us.’


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark – AT – gmail.com

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