Friday, September 4, 2009

District 9 looks at how we treat the aliens among us

District 9 is one of the rare summer blockbuster films with some depth. It is a fantastical account of a period in earth’s history, beginning 28 years ago, when a giant alien ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. A comparison with Independence Day (1996) is tempting, but beyond the ship and its gruesome, slimy aliens, the parallels soon disappear. District 9 is much more realistic, owing to the documentary-style technique used to bring the viewer up-to-date on what has transpired over the years as earth has attempted to cope with the arrival of the aliens, leading to a present-day crisis.

Rather than bringing a race of superior intellect and technology, hell-bent on our destruction, the alien ship hovers silently and apparently dormant over Johnannesburg until humans cut their way through the hull, finding over a million inhabitants who appear sickly and impoverished. Thus begins a ground-based resettlement effort which creates a refugee camp within the city: District 9 (D-9).

It is at this point that the film shows its brilliance and originality. The writers have a heyday illustrating the human tendency toward bigotry and racism. Treatment of the aliens is both hilarious and disturbing as history repeats itself. Historical footage shows the aliens being settled into a camp - which quickly becomes a slum, surrounded by barbed wire. Interviews with Johannesburg’s human residents reveal the discomfort with – or hatred of – immigrants, and resentment that “our” tax dollars are being spent on others (a timely issue, in the midst of the current debate over universal health care in the US). Interviews with “experts” add an objective and dispassionate overview of how badly things transpired - 20:20 in hindsight.

That the film is set in South Africa is refreshing – and fitting, as the humans call for segregation of the aliens. Apartheid-style signs appear, warning that aliens are not welcome in certain areas. While the majority of the human population invents and uses a derogatory term to refer to the aliens, the documentary footage is even complete with a minority of human activists staging a rally, complete with placards, calling for fair treatment of the aliens. But as tensions escalate, the government settles on a plan to relocate the entire alien community to a new camp away from the city.

Enter the central character of the story - Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), representing “Multi-National United” (MNU), a NATO-like organization in charge of overseeing and policing D-9. Wikus is assigned to head the team responsible for the relocation. Hand-held cameras record the difficult process – and provide a glimpse that the MNU is not as benevolent as the world might like to believe. Some of the actions by MNU paramilitary constitute war crimes – an uncomfortable reminder of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine (to name just a few). Riding the line between amusing/disturbing are the MNU’s attempts to obtain signed consent forms from each alien in order to carry out the relocation – and the revelation that the MNU intends to use lies, coercion, and blackmail to obtain the signatures.

It is during one of these home visits that Wikus is accidentally infected with an alien substance – and the action begins. His body quickly begins to transform into that of an alien… and the film transforms into a desperate chase, an action shoot-’em-up, and a sci-fi thriller in which Wikus and an alien companion attempt to escape to the ship in the sky and thwart an MNU plot to use Wikus’ body and DNA to activate superior alien weaponry.

D-9’s twists keep us guessing to the end, and the action is intense and engrossing. But the film’s ingenuity and depth get lost in the action. The immigration and prison camp parallels to our real history are completely relevant to current wars and occupations around the world, and it is when Wikus starts to become an alien and finds himself on the other side of the D-9 fence that we consider our prejudices and human rights atrocities through his eyes. But we haven’t the time to really think through the implications, as we are too busy shielding ourselves from the rapid-fire, graphic violence.

The box-office success of this film bodes well for a sequel – as does the plot. The aliens are eventually relocated to District 10, but we are led to wonder what will happen next. We leave the theatre a bit shell-shocked by the action and violence. What we are hoping for is a return to the thought-provoking analysis into ourselves: the ways in which we regard and treat immigrants, how we handle refugee camps, and what we accept in the actions of our governments and armies. Can we do better with District 10?