In connection with the long weekend I was finally able to see District 9, and with this post I’ll pass along some of my thoughts in relation to the film in light of a review by John T. Stanhope at Cinefantastique Online.
First, some of my initial thoughts. I have heard nothing but positive things about this film since before it was released and continuing after it hit theaters. The pre-release hype didn’t mean much for me since every studio tries to present its forthcoming film as almost the best movie ever made, but film reviewers that I trust sang the praises of District 9after it’s release which, coupled with the film’s storyline and social commentary made it a must see for me. In spite of the great reviewers’ accolades that I thought might raise unrealistic expectations, I enjoyed the film and am happy to echo the positive statements made by critics and reviewers.
Second, the film nearly literally made me sick. I admit to having a fast food burger shortly before going to the theater, and that no doubt played a part, but the grittyness of the film in depicting both the squalor of the living conditions for the stranded aliens in South Africa, the grotesque bodily changes in morphing from human to hybrid human-alien of the lead human character, and the graphic depiction of the greed, evil, and cruelty of human beings to both the aliens and other humans, all came together to create a sense of nausea in my cinema experience. Even so the film was enjoyable, a great contribution to the science fiction genre, with influences combining the elements of racism critique in the Alien Nation film and television series, and the bodily disintegration and metamorphosis from David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
Third, as might be expected for TheoFantastique with its emphasis on the exploration of social commentary through the fantastic in pop culture, I appreciated the ways in which the film touched on aspects of cultural critique, from the actions of the Multi-National United (MNU) as a thinly-veiled form of the United Nations, to the casual abortion of alien embryos, to the critique of Apartheid. Like much of science fiction in general, District 9 raises a number of issues related to “otherness” as well as cultural and social critique that make for interesting reflection.
Beyond these initial thoughts I’d like to respond to some ideas shared by John Stanhope in his film review for Cinefantastique Online. After sharing in his opening paragraphs how repulsed he was by actions of the human beings in the film in their treatment of the aliens, a little later he expresses incredulity as to the conflict between intelligent aliens and humans:
However, what I personally wound up questioning were the courses that the story and certain characters wound up taking. I had trouble with the logic of various actions pursued. I couldn’t see why the humans and (advanced) aliens couldn’t—or wouldn’t—attempt to work together more in order to try to solve some of everyone’s current dilemmas. Part of this was explained away as the aliens in question merely being worker bee types and not of huge scientific acumen. Yet, with what I saw some of the aliens doing, this didn’t fully gel with me.
A little later he expresses a related surprise as to the grotesqueness of the alien weapons in connection with alien intelligence:
By the way, we eventually get to see some of the alien weapons in action, but I couldn’t help asking myself why a race as advanced from us as these creatures obviously were would design such a messy, gory way of disposing of one’s enemy in the midst of close combat. I would think they’d come up with a way to disintegrate, rather than, well, splatter. It’s fun to watch and makes us go “eeeewww!” – but a practical for a highly advanced species?
By way of my response, neither of these aspects of the film were surprising to me given human nature, the commentary of the film by way of humanity’s tendency toward violence, and the graphic way in which all of this was depicted in the film. Many times we make the mistake of assuming that higher intelligence is or should be equated with understanding and peace. But why should this be the case? How many times have we seen this view presented in science fiction, only to be dashed to pieces? Like the scientist in The Thing From Another World who thought the alien “vegetable” had to be intelligent enough to talk through a sensible solution, the assumption of intelligence and its connection to understanding, peace, and cooperation is depicted as an unrealistic assumption on the silver and small screens finding a parallel in the real world. The progress of humanity in intelligence and technology has not led to peace and cooperation, but rather, to a greater ability and tendency to wage war and inflict suffering. Since the human interactions with the aliens in District 9 serve in some sense as a metaphor and critique for Apartheid, I was not surprised by the lack of cooperation between scientific humans and intelligent aliens, or the graphic nature of the alien weapons and their destructive powers.
Related to this Stanhope takes issue with the medical “testing” done by human beings on aliens, and that which was intended upon the lead human character as MNU sought to take advantage of his hybrid DNA and its ability to activate alien weaponry. On this Stanhope writes:
The cruelty with which various tests were being perpetrated by humans disturbed me as well. Seeing no reason behind some of it is what troubled me. For instance, preparing to cut open an individualwhile he was fully awake and not even attempting to sedate him in any way, shape, or form made me think more of SAW than science fiction. Things like this and splatter guns seemed more fitting for exploitation than cerebral filmmaking, which is what I was hoping to see a little bit more of here.
Again, I wish I could share the author’s incredulity, since good science fiction in my view can be more cerebral even as it offers critique of “otherness,” but the cruelty of this segment of the film flowed from its overall narrative, and from what we know of human nature. Just last week I read a story about a common practice in the poultry meat processing industry wherein male chickens are thrown live into meat grinders since they don’t have the value that female chickens do. It would be simple to list any number of other acts of cruelty that human beings inflict on animals, and one doesn’t have to be an animal rights activist to be concerned with such acts. Beyond this, once human beings deny a sense of humanness or personhood to others then all kinds of atrocities become possible, from the Nazi experiments upon live human beings to the medical cruelty upon aliens in District 9. Surely some of the graphic medical tests depicted in this film are due to Western culture’s preferences toward cruelty and gore in horror films, but our tendency toward inhumanity toward our fellow creatures is a more likely source of cinematic influence, and one in keeping with the filmmakers’ cultural critique.
Overall I appreciate Stanhope’s thoughts in regards to District 9 and he provides a good review. I simply feel that his incredulity in regards to aspects of human behavior in the film shouldn’t be all that surprising if we’re honest about how we often behave toward one another, particularly those we label as significantly different if not inhuman. Science fiction, and films like District 9, help present us with narrative mirrors that make us uncomfortable, and rightly so. Thanks to Neill Blomkamp, Terri Hatchell, and Peter Jackson for making us squirm for all the right reasons.