Aliens and Townships: District 9 (2009)

The library where I work has a huge South Africa exhibit up at the moment. It’s been almost 20 years to the day since Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa on April 27, 1994, and twenty years of democracy is a huge milestone for the young nation. Accompanying the exhibit is a complementary 6-week film series, and wouldn’t you know, but I’ve decided to participate in earnest! So, for the next five Thursdays, check back for reviews of the following films: A Dry White Season, Cry the Beloved Country, Red Dust, Tsotsi, and Invictus.

Last night’s film was, of course, the sci-fi flick District 9.

District 9 poster

I’ve seen District 9 once before–something like 6 or 7 years ago. All I remembered was that it was very violent and gory. In the intervening years, I had the opportunity to spend two months in South Africa in 2011. Now, I’m not claiming that spending 8 weeks in a country makes me an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely did help me understand the film better.

The primary metaphor in District 9 is so obvious that it hardly even seems metaphorical. Aliens descend on Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, and are stranded because they lack sufficient fuel to power their spaceship. The humans are horrified by the part metal, part beetle creatures who feast on meat and live in a state of permanent squalor. A decision is made to let the aliens–derogatorily deemed “prawns”–set up a temporary camp in District 9 just outside of the city. Eventually, though, the locals decide that they’re tired of the aliens living next door, and the South African government hires a private military contractor, Multinational United (MNU), to forcibly relocate them to a new internment camp. That’s where the gormless and cowardly Wikus van de Merwe steps in.

District 9 Wikus van de Merwe

Hired into a swanky position because of who his wife’s father is (hello, racism-fueled nepotism), van de Merwe is assigned the monumental and predictably violent task of “legally” evicting the aliens from their homes in District 9. What this essentially means is: 1). Show up in a bulletproof vest flanked by two military contractors with machine guns; 2). force the aliens to sign a document stating they’ve been given a 24-hour evacuation notice (hint: they haven’t); and 3). threaten to abduct the alien’s children if they refuse to cooperate, smiling deceitfully the entire time.

District 9

Of course, there’s lots of arbitrary shooting and ethically horrifying violence. The scene where van de Merwe pulls the plug on a series of incubating alien fetuses is particularly gruesome. The evacuation in District 9 was intended to mimic the series of events in District 6 in Cape Town in the 1970s. District 6 was a township (a.k.a. shantytown, a.k.a. informal settlement, a.k.a. imijondolo) in the heart of the city that occupied prime real estate. Predictably, the apartheid government decided that whites should have that land. They manufactured a series of excuses for vacating the district–gambling, drinking, violence, prostitution–and 60,000 mostly coloured residents were forcibly removed to the Cape Flats township a suitable distance away from the city. Does this sound familiar or what?

There are also a couple of notable allusions to Nazi Germany. At one point, van de Merwe admits that the new internment area for the aliens is essentially a “concentration camp,” and the horrifying biological/medical experiments that the scientists at Multinational United perform on the prawns are reminiscent of the Nazi human experiments unearthed during the Nuremberg trials.

“Alien” has long been used as a derogatory term to divide humans into upper and lower classes. Xenophobic Americans often describe undocumented Mexican immigrants as “illegal aliens,” thus suggesting that they are lower humans undeserving of citizenship, or worse–not humans at all. So with that in mind, why not make a science fiction film with, literally, aliens as a stand-in for all discriminated peoples? The aliens in District 9 are clearly supposed to be coloured and black South Africans, whom the apartheid government treated like second- and third-class citizens. Carrying the metaphor further is their supposedly disgusting appearance and reliance on raw meat for sustenance, which leads to further discrimination based on appearance and cultural practices. And of course, the irony is that the aliens in District 9 are brilliantly technologically minded, with advanced biological weaponry that humans can only marvel at.

I’m sorry to say, though, that the shantytown District 9 bears an uncanny resemblance to many townships that I saw when I was in the country. Let us remember that dirt, disease, and lack of facilities are symptoms of poverty, and not inherent qualities of the poor. I can’t tell you how often I still see iterations of that awful, outdated argument, where poor people are blamed for their own poverty because of their supposed lack of morals.

District 9 township

Here’s a screenshot from District 9

shack settlement, Jo'burg

And here’s one I took through the window of a bus while passing through the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Let’s look at that again. District 9…

District 9 "yard"

And a picture I took in Soweto in 2011. (This was where the movie was filmed, incidentally).

Soweto

I’m not trying to shame the country or anything like that (heck, my examples of the faulty thinking surrounding poverty were pulled from the U.S.), but it’s important to remember that while one huge battle was won in 1994, the struggle still continues. And not just in South Africa, either–it’s a question of humane treatment of humans all across the globe. As one film reviewer put it succinctly, “Substitute ‘black,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Mexican,’ ‘illegal,’ ‘Jew,’ or any number of different labels for the word ‘prawn’ in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue” (Chris Mikesell of Ka Leo). 

On top of all the well-executed, thinly veiled social criticism, District 9 is a solidly produced, well-acted, and exciting film. The fact that it grossed over $200 million on a $30 million budget is a victory all its own.  I think it’s difficult even for someone with zero knowledge of South African history not to grasp that something important is happening, that the very viability of human decency is at stake. All in all, it’s an even better film than I remembered, and its creativity and social importance make it a contemporary sci-fi classic, if there can even be such a thing. Who would have guessed that aliens and townships were such a compelling combination?

Overall grade: A-

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15 thoughts on “Aliens and Townships: District 9 (2009)

  1. “District 9” was a great work by Neil Blomkamp not just in terms of Sci-Fi and visual effects but also in terms of the very interesting story. This was a great article and it’s always a pleasure for me to come here and check on what’s new. Hope you continue your great work.

  2. I’ve seen this movie a few times (by accident actually, because it was on television here and choices are limited), but enjoyed it both times. I think I shall have to watch it again, now that I have been to South Africa, Argentina and Brazil and witnessed these kinds of things in person.

    1. Yes, I do recommend that you sit down and watch it in full. It’s probably one of the best action films out there. That’s not exactly saying much, since most action films are just mindless violence, but this one has an actual message beyond “look at this ripped dude smash things and fire guns.”

  3. Excellent, Alina…. even though I never saw it myself. I love that you brought light citing the parallels of aliens to the real world. I’ve known the existence of this movie but I never cared to take a notice because I’m not really fond of alien movies and a lot of horrid movies. So thanks for the review. I’ll see if I can get my eyes on this movie with you rating it high. Loving the parallels that you made.

    1. Thanks, Rommel! I’m glad you enjoyed my review. The movie has a very strong thread of social criticism running through it, and I didn’t want to downplay that. I usually don’t really like alien films OR action films, so the fact that I enjoyed this one is a good sign that you might like it too! Let me know what you think when you have a chance to watch it.

  4. What a fabulous film series – I’m envious. I’ll definitely look forward to your reviews. South Africa is another part of the world that I would very much like to learn more about.

    1. I’m glad you like the idea for the series—what can I say? The Africana Library did all the work for me! But yes, I do hope you get to visit South Africa at some point. It’s not the safest place by any stretch of the imagination, but the vast majority (by which I mean 98%) of the people there are incredibly kind, generous, friendly, and—perhaps most surprising—relatively unjudgmental of Americans.

    1. Oh yeah, I know! That’s why I included those pictures of the townships from 2011. There was a whole slew of slums that I didn’t dare to walk through when I was in Argentina two years ago, either. Glad to hear you like the film, too. It’s really one of the best action films out there, I’d say!

  5. Very cool, post! I loved the film ‘District 9’ and agree the metaphor was obvious yet how strange I should grow to care for an alien which seems repugnant. It works so well! I loved that you threw in your own pictures. It’s an artful film with an undercurrent message to us all. 🙂

    1. Yes, I know! I was grimacing early on in the film, what with all the rotting, raw meat everywhere and the strange liquids that the aliens seemed to squirt from various orifices. But people have had those kinds of reactions to skin color in the past, and the aliens ended up being more humane than the humans. I’m glad I watched it again! I’d really forgotten how good it was (plus, I could understand the accents much better this time haha). Thanks for reading and commenting, Cindy 🙂

  6. Wow, you actually visited some of the locations. I know it sounds horrible of me, but I would be scared.
    I like what the film is trying to say and you explain it very well, but it’s a very though film to watch. It really depressed me. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it though, so correct me if I’m wrong but there’s almost no humor and some of the things that happen are quite disgusting. The one you mention is rough, but isn’t there also a human-alien sex scene (or maybe it’s just implied)? Still just thinking of it made me kind of sick.. Also, just the way it shows violence, it’s very brutal.

    1. No need to worry—I was scared much of the time that I was in South Africa, but I refused to let my fear stop me from doing things. What I didn’t add was that I took that second picture of Soweto during a guided tour of the township. The most “dangerous” thing that happened to me was when a couple of really young kids ran up to me and started patting the pockets of my jeans, looking for change.

      It is a tough film to watch. It’s certainly gory and gruesome, but no, there isn’t an “interspecies” (code for “interracial”?) sex scene, though that type of activity is implied. I don’t think it’s much worse than “Django Unchained” with respect to the violence, though I do wonder if some of the violence was supposed to allude to the township riots that took place in the years before Mandela was elected in 1994. But yeah, I was surprised to feel tears welling in my eyes at one point. The ending is pretty satisfying, at least.

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