Monday, February 15, 2010

Movies: District 9

I've put off writing about this Blair Witch meets E.T. because I've wanted to think about it. I saw it nearly a month ago and I'm still thinking—not because its themes are so very challenging, but because I'm struggling with its ethical inconsistencies.

There is no law that a film must be ethically consistent—in fact, as a medium that requires the touch of hundreds of hands, and is ultimately controlled by a profit-oriented corporation, we might expect that film be consistently inconsistent. But the moralizing tone of District 9 insists that right and wrong exist. Through not-so-subtle metaphors, it accuses us: "Do you see what you've done?" but, then, allows itself to succumb to the very attitudes that generate the behaviors it condemns, strictly, it seems, for comic relief. I will explain.

Science Fiction and Social Dystopia have a long history of overlap, and District 9 claims a place in the lineage of Brave New World and 1984. A silver pancake of a spacecraft has come to rest over the city of Johannesburg, and its extra-terrestrial inhabitants have entered the city. Rather quickly, an apartheid-like situation has come about, in which the aliens, derogatorily called "Prawns" by the locals (for the bipedal creatures look semi-crustacean—think of the malnourished progeny of E.T. and the Terminator and you might begin to get a mental image), live in fenced-in slums. Posted signs around the city warn "for humans only" and "no Prawns allowed." In the midst of civil unrest about the Prawn situation, the government hires a contractor to relocate the Prawns to another ghetto, farther from city center. Tasked with spearheading this effort is our bumbling hero, for he is the son-in-law of the company's Founding CEO (much to that man's chagrin).

The twist comes about when our hero is somehow infected by a special elixir—he has entered the shanty-town with his men, attempting to serve each Prawn household with an eviction notice (most of which the sub-human creatures simply try to eat or tear apart), and confiscated a bottle of something that looks vaguely like a weapon. We will come to discover that this fluid has been slowly culled for years by one of the few intelligent Prawns, who has a secret laboratory in his basement, where he is slowly repairing part of the ship, so that he can return home and get help for his species. The fluid's effects, however, on touching our hero's skin, are noxious. First he gets very sick; then, his fingernails begin to rot and fall off. In a matter of days, his arm is that of a Prawn's.

Now, he is of very special interest to a number of parties. The Prawns have a highly-evolved collection of weaponry that only works in their hands. A quick series of tests demonstrates that our once-human hero's Prawn-arm is capable of firing Prawn weapons. Not only does the contracting company want to turn him into a science experiment, but a thuggish Nigerian warlord wants possession of his arm as well. This leads to me to the inconsistency.

The Prawns, effectively isolated in their ghetto, are carnivores with a particular taste for canned cat food. A band of lawless Nigerians becomes the broker between the Prawns and the white humans, trading cat food for weapons, which they are stockpiling, though they don't have the technology to use them. The caricature of the Nigerians—witchcraft-practicing thugs who believe that, by ingesting Prawn body parts, they will develop the ability to fire Prawn weapons—destabilizes any ethical ground on which the film had begun to establish itself. We see our hero lose everything—his job, his wife (whom he loves so tenderly, you will cry), his humanity—as he slowly becomes a Prawn. A weak-hearted hero, we see him partner with the intelligent Prawn so long as it serves him, only to throw the creature to the wayside when it won't do his bidding. The film's finish is poignant; after a grandiose battle, the ship does get fixed, going off to get help, but leaves our hero and the Prawn population behind in the meanwhile. He lives there, in solitude, crafting silent gifts that he leaves for his wife.

And so, oddly, this film tells us, "you too could become a Prawn, so treat Prawns with tenderness," but never "you too could be a Nigerian, so treat them as humans." In the real world, where there are no Prawns, the latter message is more important than the former, and in fact, before we see any thuggish Nigerians in the film, we are certain that the Prawns stand in for South Africa's apartheid-era blacks.

This grave inconsistency aside, District 9 is one of the greatest Science Fiction films I've seen, with an ideal blend of action, romance, and thought provocation, very much entrenched in our cultural moment, when weak men are made heroes much against their will by battling something of which they once were a part. Perhaps the film's ethical inconsistency is equally symptomatic of our times, in which we profess equality but perpetuate segregation by letting stereotypes propagate, unchallenged.

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