Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart leave their art-house compounds to find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week they welcome Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi apartheid allegory District 9 to the harsh slums of apolitical summer action movies.
So, Ben, the director of District 9, the fairly ambitious, sometimes fake-documentary about extraterrestrial settlements in South Africa and accompanying government perfidy, has been making the rounds, telling reporters his film is an allegory for apartheid. It’s unusual for a filmmaker to be so blunt about his film’s Meaning: it seems to imply that Blomkamp is a bit desperate to establish that his is a Serious Film—that the blockbuster-of-the-week guise is but a mere trapping.
That proves to be more of an albatross than a virtue: because District 9 packs some social-issues seriousness into its sci-fi wackiness, I’m tempted to hold it to a higher standard than it could live up to; the movie is superlative popcorn fare, but disappointing Cinema: wouldn’t you agree?
I think part of it might have to do with the Mississippi Burning Problem: Blomkamp tries to tell the story of an oppressed minority—the E.T.s—not through their own eyes but through the story of one of the oppressors—the humans. Not that, here, it’s something to be offended about, but it may serve as a hint as to why the film doesn’t quite work. Our protagonist, Wickus (the capable Sharlto Copley, in his feature debut), is a mid-level bureaucrat for Multi National United (take that multinational corporations!); he’s less an everyman than a schmuck, and not really a serviceable entry point into Blomkamp’s thoroughly realized alternate reality. He’s hardly developed to boot, aside from a marginal wife whose whininess is quickly grating. (In contrast, our central alien character has a son and a sweet father-spawn dynamic.)
Wickus is in charge of relocating the aliens, called “prawns” because they resemble those bottom-feeding crustaceans (as well as Futurama’s Zoidberg), from their barbed-wire ghetto shantytown to a new concentration camp tent-city. He giggles as they burn alien eggs and hear them pop—“like popcorn”—but his cruelty, and general bourgeois airs, soon leads to a comeuppance—and it’s here that Blomkamp and his screenwriter, Terri Tatchell, make another misstep.
Of all the plots you’re going to borrow from, you pick Finian’s Rainbow? Really? After exposure to the aliens’ “fluid,” Wickus begins to transform into the very thing he once held prejudices against: the prawns! And he runs a Race Against Time to find The Cure. Phew, there’s a lot going on here, from the Africans versus Afrikaners subtext to the door-to-door raids that evoke Iraq. What subtext did you find most potent, Ben?
As you point out, Blomkamp is so overt about his main talking point — not unlike Sascha Baron Cohen in Bruno — that it becomes more interesting to look at the things that don’t quite fit into that reading. Although, before I continue I’d like to point out that South Park and The Onion explored similarly murky allegorical waters years ago. At any rate, isn’t Blomkamp borrowing quite freely from the Old Testament? Aside from all the Middle East-evoking imagery of walled cities, insurgencies, suicide missions, raids and secret torture chambers, we have a fairly standard Messianic narrative about a skinny young man sacrificing himself in order to liberate an oppressed population. Wickus is put in this position of power — asking prawns to sign eviction notices ahead of their massive MNU-executed displacement — by his father (in law), an omniscient corporate (over)lord who acts in mysterious ways. The Christ duties are split into two characters here: the sacrificial human Wickus (body) and the prawn Christ(opher) Johnson (soul). When the former is defeated, the latter ascends to the alien mothership in the heavens aboard a cross-shaped escape pod and vows to come back in three years (resurrection takes longer in the 21st century A.D.) to rescue Wickus and turn him back into a human.
This brings up another of District 9’s most obvious intertexts: Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The despicable Wickus — imagine The Office’s Michael Scott transposed into a situation where he decides the fates of millions and his racist behavior is encouraged rather than awkwardly tolerated — is a perfectly Kafkaesque bureaucratic peon who begins to transform into the thing that disgusts him most. Of course, Blomkamp has neither the guts to abandon his hero to fate as Kafka did, nor the masochistic glee to hone in on the transformation’s unpleasant psychological toll, as David Cronenberg did in The Fly. This is a blockbuster, after all, and though it’s nice to see an action film that puts its politics front and center after so many damaging “apolitical” movies this summer, it’s hard (as you noted) not to hold Blomkamp to a higher standard because of his self-conscious foregrounding of subtext.
Parsing through Blomkamp’s insights and blunders, two high-minded action films came to mind: Children of Men and The Matrix. Like those blockbusters-with-sophisticated-allegorical-aspirations, District 9’s greatest asset (beyond excellent visual effects, obvs) is its fascinating setting, which is defined in sharp, gritty detail and depth. Identifiably contemporary, slightly futuristic and at times medieval in its casual harshness and propensity for sudden violence, Blomkamp’s Johannesburg felt very similar to Alfonso Cuarón’s London and, to a lesser extent, the Wachowski Brothers’ anonymous megalopolis. Once Wickus went all Neo on the MNU mercenaries and Nigerian arms/prostitutes/cat food dealers, I thought District 9 fell into some of the comic book clichés that swallowed up the Matrix franchise.
To get back to the desert of the real, though, did you get the uneasy feeling, as I did, that setting a sci-fi film about a systematically marginalized population in a city and country that really are terrifyingly segregated and fraught with inequality somehow does injustice to the seriousness of the actual situation in South Africa?
I’ll get to your question in a moment; first, did you think there was a deep strain of racism running through this film? I mean, if I were Nigerian, I’d be all like, What the fuck? The way Blomkamp portrayed them as Oz-style hoo-doo gangsters, hell-bent on procuring the prawns’ mega-weaponry and eating alien flesh, including Wickus’ arm—all that was missing were bones through their noses. (You need Michael Bay for that.)
It was more than just the Nigerians, too. The Prawns, as sympathetic as they ultimately are thanks to Christ(opher)’s ordeal, are portrayed as savages: they love cat food, they tear into raw meet, they urinate publicly, they eat tires, they dumpster dive. They were more like animals, pets dying to be domesticated, than human stand-ins; we seem meant to side with the segregators. If the Prawns are meant to represent the South African oppressed, then the film’s ultimate vindication of them is still an awfully backhanded defense.
So, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with setting your oppression allegory in a place where oppression is still happening; because, for Blomkamp, the allegory is so specific, that’s sort of the point, and necessary if it’s going to work. But when you portray certain ethnic groups as less than human, which I believe Blomkamp comes close to doing, then the setting becomes problematic. It’s good if audiences walk away thinking that South Africans deserve their freedom, but irresponsible if they also think that they’re your standard African savages.
I guess that’s what I was trying to get at, but did so in a back-handed, Blomkampian manner. The prawn-apartheid allegory only works if it does justice to the complexities of the issue, and it seems like that’s not always the case here. Another perpetual problem with apartheid movies: they’re always about men — men who oppress, men who are oppressed, men who oppress certain men (and many women) because they are in turn being oppressed by other men. Films about South Africa — Tsotsi comes to mind — seem more often than not to be concerned with the fractured psyches of the nation’s men, and using unconventional father-son narratives to explore themes of trauma, emasculation, nationhood and cultural identity.
In District 9, the apparently all-male prawns have kids, yet don’t seem to have any women — of course I don’t know the specifics of shrimp reproduction, so maybe I’m setting up a false gender binary here. (Although aren’t all binaries ultimately false?) The Nigerian gangs, we’re told in mock news footage, also trade in inter-species sex workers, but it’s never clear whether or not such activities between male prawns and human women can result in pregnancy or whatever. (Henry, where do baby prawns come from?) At one point Wickus gleefully listens to prawn eggs popping as an MNU stormtrooper sets a shanty ablaze, but whose eggs were those and how were they fertilized? Maybe that’s the reason they’ve come to our planet in such a desperate state: to reproduce with Earth women in order to ensure the survival of their kind, like that Gary Shandling comedy What Planet Are You From?.
The weird, gender-less (because almost exclusively male) gender politics of this film get especially strange once Wickus steps into his savior role, and the state-controlled media spread the rumor that our hero is wanted for having sex with prawns. The images they release to the press provide one of the film’s funnier, most self-consciously absurd moments, but do they amount to some kind of interspecies gay joke, or even the sci-fi equivalent of bestiality? As with his film’s Biblical overtones, it seems like Blomkamp has over-thought his apartheid allegory at the expense of District 9’s other subtexts. I guess it’s hard to think about love or religion when you live in a war zone.
Special Bonus: The Neil Blomkamp short film Alive in Joburg (2005), upon which District 9 is based.