Updated: Jun 13
More often than not, the most horrifying and heartbreaking villains are represented by people who look just like you and me. In Neill Blomkamp's 2009 Sci-Fi, District 9, the conflict we watch on screen is an allegory, not only for the apartheid era in South Africa, but an even broader commentary on how we react to situations and “others” that we do not fully understand. Fear of the other has been a devastatingly driving force behind terrible historic events continuously repeated, as if we are forever re-learning the golden rule. Treating others the way we want to be treated is an instruction that sadly, is most accessible through familiarity, above all else.
In District 9, Blomkamp introduces you to a Johannesburg, South Africa ravaged with socio-political discord and civil unrest, a situation only heightened by the fact that an alien race has also been living there for two-plus decades. When an alien ship mysteriously settles over Johannesburg in the early 80’s, its malnourished alien race is policed into a human-regulated, quarantined compound called District 9. Over time, due to mass reproduction and an unjust economy within the district, their living conditions have been reduced to a massive slum. Understanding that District 9 has become uninhabitable, and needing to better regulate the alien race, the government decides to relocate the population to a new enclosure called District 10.
Whereas District 9 was a quick solution at the beginning of the aliens’ residency in Johannesburg, for all intents and purposes, District 10 is an engineered concentration camp. As viewers, we are introduced to this relocation process through documentary-style footage, meant to connect us with our human counterparts even more so than if we were just watching a straightforward sci-fi monster movie. We never learn the name the alien race calls themselves; instead, “we” put them in their place by referring to them as prawns. Parktown prawns are a species of cricket found in South Africa that is considered an undeniable pest. Taking away their dignity by calling them prawns behind, (and in front of) their backs, is only the first offense in a long list of degrading ways in which the aliens are mistreated.
Only the Nigerians who operate within the compound show the aliens any compassion, only displaying kindness to profit from overcharging them for food and manning an alien technology black market. These hustlers are the ones who interact with the alien race most frequently, and still, they know them no better than you or I come to know them within the first few minutes of the film. It seems that no real effort was made to integrate the aliens into human society, and over twenty years, this “fear of the other” became ingrained in an entire culture of belief. Sound familiar?
Outside of the documentary-style footage, our point of contact within District 9 is Wikus van de Merwe. Wikus is an employee of Multinational United (MNU), the second largest weapons manufacturing company in the world. MNU was also put in charge of the rules and regulations for which the aliens and humans must coexist. At the beginning of the film, Wikus is put in charge of the new alien relocation program to District 10, beginning with evicting the aliens from the only homes they’ve ever known on Earth. Within the human community, Wikus seems to be a likeable person. He seems to be at the bottom of a bureaucratic food chain and is given the chance at a promotion within MNU from his brute of a father-in-law. While interacting with his peers, it’s apparent that Wilkus is a socially awkward people-pleaser that acquires the personas of those around him to fit in. While highly intelligent and mostly competent at his job, the relocation responsibility is his first chance to “run with the big boys,” and make his mark on the company. Wikus is an excellent example of someone molded by their environment to be at war with their inner humanity and the innate desire to assimilate in society.
Most of the characters in District 9 are fairly one-note: the heartless MNU executive, the kill-crazy soldier, the thoughtless wife. But how Wikus interacts with the aliens paints him to be a very complicated character. The likeable guy we saw with the documentary film crew begins to erode as he patronizes the aliens, cursing them while not treating any of them with any sense of individuality. He even goes so far as to show his newly appointed protegee how to “abort” a shack of gestating alien eggs by removing their food source and then torching the shack to make sure the job is complete. As he and his team work their way through the slum, he only identifies aliens with higher intelligence by calling out their relationship to the crimes they are committing. Christopher Johnson is one of those aliens that Wikus typecasts as a criminal. While investigating Christopher’s shack, he comes across many scientific apparatus that are in the process of rehabilitating a ship that can help get the aliens home. s he picks up the all-too-important canister containing the life-blood of the ship, he gets spritzed by the black liquid inside.
This incident is the true catalyst for the personal morality struggle within District 9. After getting sprayed and suffering an arm injury, Wikus becomes very sick. Due to his exposure to the alien biotechnology, his body begins to reject its human appearance and Wikus physically starts transforming into the very other that he fears. It is only then that he begins to sympathize with the alien and understand the hatred and fear they endure. It should not be lost on any viewer that it takes having his humanness disintegrate from his body for Wikus to learn true humanity and compassion for fellow life. District 9 is rich with symbolism, and is a desperate call to action to love your neighbor. The sci-fi genre is perfectly constructed to mask messages that need to be heard within riveting landscapes of faraway planets and imaginative new forms of life. Ignoring the alien biotechnology and simply redefining the term “alien” with its synonymous counterpart, “foreign”, we can acknowledge District 9 as a gritty realization of every refugee state to come about in our history.
I think there are elements of Wikus in every single one of us. We want to find acceptance, be successful, make each other laugh, and at the end of the workday, retire to a loving and peaceful home. Those desires are what bond us together. And like Wikus, we struggle (to various degrees) with fighting our inner fears, and the shame that cause us to lash out at one another. To live in such discord is the essence of living, fight or flight, beyond just human nature. This cornucopia of emotion and struggle can be found in even the most stable of households.
Now imagine taking that discord and feeling that struggle in a place in which you’re not wanted, reviled even. Districts 9 implores that we be even better than Wikus, and speak up for the impoverished and abused, those displaced in society without a true physical and, even more important, spiritual home. Some say now, more than ever, it’s time to stand up to injustice; but that fight is always relevant. When the documentary footage is no longer our window into the world of District 9, we see action as it happens, sans the conditioning rhetoric of the bureaucracy and media. It is our duty as able bodied, intelligent consumers to heed District 9’s call to action. Alien or not, know your neighbor and fight that fear.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.