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The Urge to Flee the Theater: What District 9 Taught the World

If someone asked me what I could offer them to convey the “mission statement” of science fiction, I would hand over a copy of District 9 without thought.

There’s no way of getting around it; this film does what all good science fiction is meant to do. It elaborately disguises the world we know to make us forget how the everyday works just for a while. Bind your story in the confines of reality and many of us will shut down, ignore it, emotionally switch off. Can you blame us? We are constantly bombarded by negative media—every newspaper, every documentary, every piece of historical fiction attempting to prove how gritty and awful the world can actually be outside of suburbia, or the city, or the country. We know that it’s bad. We don’t want to know anymore, and so we go to see dozens of popcorn films a year to help us forget.

But if you couch these ideas in a story that is not set in a reality we recognize… then, you might get people to listen.

I have a confession to make: when I first saw District 9, I almost walked out of the theater. For the first and only time in my life, I almost left without getting to the end of a film.

It happened when MNU captured Wickus and used him to perform weapons tests using “prawn” firearms that humans had never been able to wield. He was begging them to stop. They forced him to kill one of the aliens, using electric shocks to provoke the muscle response needed to fire. Then they prepared to “harvest” the morphing parts of his body before his transformation was complete. His new alien limbs would be valuable to military developers, of course, so there was no time to lose. When they began the operation, I could feel my chest clenching and I started to hold my breath; I was already in tears, thinking to myself—if something doesn’t change right now, if it doesn’t get better somehow, I won’t be able to take one more second of this.

Wickus escaped and I remained in my seat, but I will never forget how powerful that emotion was, how I sat there gulping air for the next ten minutes as I tried to regain some kind of equilibrium. This film had put me through something brutal, something I hadn’t been prepared for.

This film was absolutely right to do that.

The direct allegory running through the story is easy to recognize: District 9 is a reference to District 6, an area in South Africa where 60,000 colored Africans were evicted from their homes during apartheid in the 1970s. The atrocious behavior of MNU’s employees and their thirst for better firepower is a commentary on the private military contractors being used by governments today, specifically Xe Services (formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide). Choosing to zero in on these two topics seems logical: the film was set and shot in South Africa and the potential problems associated with military contractors are a modern concern.

But that is not the only commentary you find in District 9. In some ways, the film is a proverbial map of human suffering; the choice to relocate the prawns relates not only District 6, but to the Trail of Tears that destroyed the Native American way of life, and to interment camps in any number of countries around the world. The experiments that MNU subject the prawns to are reminiscent of the medical experiments done on Jews during the Holocaust. The fact that they give the aliens anglicized names calls Ellis Island to mind, where immigrants had their “unpronounceable” names changed to something simpler (read: English).

The journey that Wickus takes strikes a chord because he does not begin as the outsider; we become the “other” with him, we experience every horror, every unimaginable change, at the same time he does. His instantaneous rejection by society at large represents a very real human fear that exists outside of his metamorphic dilemma, and makes his own terror even more palpable. There is a cutting irony to Wickus, however; his monstrous father-in-law, in an effort to get his daughter to write her husband off as long gone, reminds her that he had “never been strong.” But strength is exactly what Wickus gains as he changes, a will to overcome that he had never been equipped with in his former, far easier life.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be at all surprising that the character who reflects every positive aspect of humanity throughout the film happens to be Christopher Johnson, the prawn who offers to help Wickus. Christopher is intelligent, honorable, and kinder at heart than anyone else we come into contact with in the story. Every moment that Wickus doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by Christopher’s character is another moment when you’re forced to look at humanity, at yourself, and decide what sort of person you think you would be in their situation.

The prawns are far from pretty—in the human sense—and the choice to give them a more insect-like appearance was a brave move on the part of director Neill Blomkamp (apparently, he wanted them to be even more unpleasant-looking, but was aware that it would be difficult for a human audience to relate to a figure that didn’t possess a face and eyes that we could really look into). You feel empathy for the aliens in District 9, but it’s not empathy that is triggered by your impulse to cuddle them like newborn stumbling puppies. Their appearance forces you to relate to them on an equal level (though the humans in the movie clearly don’t), as beings of thought and feeling.

Love drives this film just as powerfully as hate and lust for power and lack of understanding; Wickus wants his wife back and Christopher wants a good life for his child. The presence of that love, though it does not receive the film’s focus, is a lifeline to the audience, a reminder of what is good about being human. The knowledge that Wickus is still leaving gifts for his wife at the end of the film, the suggestion that perhaps he has not given up hope, provides a relief in the end that Christopher’s escape cannot.

Even with the levels of torment that the characters in District 9 are subjected to, one of the most unsettling aspects of the story is how everyone continues to act in their own interests far beyond the point of reason. It is possible that the lesson of this film is contained in an idea of unity—of fostering not just the means, but the desire, to keep a bigger picture in mind and relate to each other. A little bit of selflessness is the only way to breed understanding, as proven when Wickus finally turns back to save Christopher’s life.

The ideas presented in District 9 are vital to each and every one of us. It is what every living human being needs to think about, but also what we are so desperate to ignore. This is what science fiction should be, this is what it can do. The next time someone tries to tell you that your favorite genre holds no purpose, you sit them down to watch District 9.

You show them how to use the past to decipher the future, and how it teaches you to be better.

Emmet Asher-Perrin supports non-human rights. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.


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