Sunday, August 16, 2009

Our Heroine Would Like To Remind You That Apartheid Allegories Carry More Weight When They Bear Some Resemblance to Apartheid

Entertainment Weekly calls District 9 a "thinking person's sci-fi movie" which I think must mean it had a low-budget, stars unknown actors, and was shot in South Africa; because anyone watching this movie doing any thinking at all will see plot holes large enough for the Prawn Mothership to pass though without touching.

District 9 was the weekend's big movie, so by now I think the story is probably familiar. But for you newbies: a giant spaceship comes to rest above Johannesburg. With the eyes of the world on them, the South African government cuts its way into the ship after several failed attempts at making contact. Inside, they find thousands and thousands of insect-like creatures huddled in the dark, weak and malnourished. Herculean humanitarian efforts are undertaken to save them.

Twenty years later, when the action of the movie takes place, that Mothership is still hovering above J-burg, the aliens are still in South Africa, and the situation has deteriorated all around. The "Prawns," as they are now known, have not been integrated in any way within South Africa (Warning: Unsubtle Allegory). The creatures have a very different culture from humanity's that has turned local residents against them, and led ultimately to their being incarcerated in District 9, an alien shanty town riddled with crime and degradation.

Now the government has decided to move all the Prawns to a new camp further outside J-burg, and the story follows the experiences of a lowly civil-servant named Wikus Van de Merwe, who is impacted by the disastrous relocation in a particularly tragic way.

Every review I've read praises the movie for its message of "ethnic tolerance" and it's "challenge to be better people." One sharp-eyed critic noticed that it was "a pop allegory for apartheid" and another raved that it's "a comment on the treatment of illegal immigrants." To all this Our Heroine responds NOT. BLOODY. LIKELY.

No way, no how, does the apartheid analogy hold up upon inspection. The movie, if I may quote Cher Horowitz, is a full-on Monet. From far away it looks awesome, but up close it's a big old mess.

It's the failure of the details that ruins the story. There are so many questions, important questions, that are never answered (or even asked): Why did the aliens come here? Why were they all sick upon arrival? Who (and where) are their leaders? No one ever explains this to us, and it's never indicated that these questions were ever asked. Hollywood, letting your audience know WHY the aliens came here is Sci-Fi 101! If you can't even get that sorted, how can you graduate to advanced, "thinking person's," Sci-Fi?

It turns out that the Prawn Mothership is completely operational, and their home planet is livable. Yet we are expected to weep and mourn at their dire predicament stuck here on cruel Earth. But...if their ship is in flying condition, why are they stuck? And let's suppose for a moment that some sort of damage had been preventing their leaving; if the aliens were so unwelcome, why did we never help them to repair what they needed to leave? You are asking your audience to believe that the whole world regretted the presence of these aliens, and yet - for no reason - went through all the trouble and expense of keeping them in this dreadful camp, and then relocating them, when we could have just shuttled them up to the Mothership and bid them a peaceful adieu? I guess that must be because humans are terrible.

ALSO, it turns out that the aliens have weaponry that renders them virtually invincible, and which it is impossible for humans either to utilize or replicate, and these weapons are lying all over District 9, and yet the aliens never revolt and escape to their fully-operational Mothership, to their completely habitable planet? Why not? And it's not because the aliens are pacifists, they have no qualms about killing humans, and some even take pride in their kill count.

At the beginning, the movie tries to imply that cultural differences between humans and Prawns played a large part in the creation of District 9. The Prawns like to eat rubber and other trash. They can be found scavenging in scrap heaps like animals, which, obviously, humans find distasteful. They also go crazy over cat food and raw meat (especially cows' heads) and this also humans find distasteful (well, disgusting, really). But the director seems to realize that humans are not ALL so terrible that the whole world would agree to District 9 with nary a peep over mere differences in diet. So he goes further: it turns out that some of the things Prawns like to do for fun are deadly and destructive, like derailing trains. WHAT WAS THAT? Hold up: if we are able to communicate with the Prawns, which is very obviously the case, then why was it impossible to explain to them that certain of their behaviors were unacceptable? You mean authorities let the Prawns reap so much destruction that they had to be "quarantined" without anyone just explaining to them that they were causing catastrophes? Or did someone do that and the Prawns didn't care? The audience is never told, though that seems like an important distinction.

I could continue, because even the action segments of the film have common-sense problems, but I'll stop just to say that the demands of telling a good story were completely sacrificed for the sake of the message, and even sacrificing story for message, the analogy between man's inhumanity to man and man's inhumanity to insect-like alien of whom we cannot say why it is here, what it wants, where it is going, and why it does terrible things is a very, very weak one.

But reading the reviews I can see that the allure of a slick yet low-budget sci-fi film with a message is too much for critics to handle dispassionately.

Honestly, what a shame. District 9 could have been Benito Sereno with aliens, but chose instead to be Alien Nation set in South Africa, except Alien Nation was better.

Updated: Creative Minority Report could not disagree with me more, and he makes some excellent points about the movie that I either missed or discounted because I was annoyed by all the holes. Click here for his whole review.


Matt said...

Allow me to fill a few of your holes;

First of, the ship was described as "in distress", which could mean any number of electrical or mechanical problems could have existed, and, when MNU cut into the ship, the lights were off and it was in a very large amount of disrepair.

Just because the engines are operational, does not mean that the life support and computer systems are online...

"Why did the aliens come here? Why were they all sick upon arrival? Who (and where) are their leaders?"

Again, this is where life support systems come into play. For arguments sake, lets say the ship was damaged by a meteorite storm (highly likely due to the ship's large size) Some of the compartments may have been torn open into the void of space, killing a good deal of the aliens, specifically the leader caste. Christopher is likely the sole surviving member of the crew, and therefore plotted a course to the nearest liveable planet (Earth)

While they coast, the Prawns multiply causing their living conditions to deteriorate.

The reason they left their planet in the first place could be any number of things (civil war, colonization, exploration)

Although the aliens are unwelcome, we cannot help them repair their ship and leave, for the sole reason that they are the working caste, not the thinking caste. Its pointed out twice in the movie that these prawns aren't noted for their intelligence, and are very gullible when it comes to the humans telling them to do things. Also, MNU is holding them there for experimentation and weaponry purposes.

As far as weapons go, i cant disagree with you there, but i can offer speculations as to why they did not revolt;

Without leadership the revolution would be doomed anyway.

The strict curfews and deadly force imposed by MNU prevented the aliens from even attempting a revolt.

And finally, they've been there for 28 years. There must have been multiple revolts that were immediately crushed by military force.

The Prawn derailing of trains can be summed up by the media using anything they can to blow it out of proportion, like the 911 craze where everything was suspected terrorist activity.

I thouroghly enjoyed Distric 9 and think it's plot held together very well. Apart from a few "wtf?" moments(grav-gunning a pig... really?), i thought the plot was really concrete

Our Heroine said...

Matt: thank you so much for paying my post the compliment of considering and answering it to the extent that you did, even though I am about to disagree with you about some points.

I grant you that things COULD HAVE gone down the way you describe, but they could have gone down in other ways as well, and my problem with the movie is that it didn't give me enough information, (whether that was deliberate or not I don't know) and left to my own devices, I drew totally different conclusions about the Prawns than you did.

For example, for a ship that was allegedly in distress, (maybe damaged by meteors) w/o life support or computer systems, it took off without any issues! And it had to have systems and life support if Christopher was planning on navigating it to his home planet and surviving the trip! (Or at least that's what I assumed based on what I saw)

And if the Prawns left their planet because something bad had happened there, Chris was real confident about being able to find help once he got back. BUT, if they were coming to colonize Earth, that's an act of war (making District 9 a POW camp).

In regards to your point that the media blew Prawn destructiveness out of proportion, I saw no evidence for that, and in fact the "scientist" in the "documentary" explains that their destructiveness appeared to be cultural/biological. I agree that it's possible it was all a big media frenzy; but I wasn't shown enough for that conclusion, and, in fact, to me the movie's evidence pointed to the contrary.

You describe a coherent narrative for the Prawns, and if the movie had provided some audio/visual evidence for what you describe, I would definitely have felt differently about it. But what it seemed to me was that the writer/director could not come up with a narrative that explained the ship (first being in distress and then working fine), the arrival of the Prawns, how they all ended up in District 9, Chris's intelligence, and the Prawn arsenal coherently, so he just left it vague and blurry and called it "art."

My final point: your post did a better job than he did!

Anonymous said...

Let pose a third and fourth possibility that I thought was suggested, but never fully explained. First I think both of you have very valid points/arguments both ways. A lot was left out of the movie as far as solid explanations, but there were some subtle hints. One was the humans believed them to be of the "working" caste of their species. This made me think of ants, and how a soldier ant protects the colony, and a worker ant finds food and in some species creates bridges out of their bodies. All of that is done without thought merely drive for food or from chemical signals from a Queen. Imagine if the Prawn were nothing more than button pushers or box movers, this was their sole purpose in life. The director did hint at a Queen dying. "But the turning point came when it clicked for Blomkamp that his aliens were like a hive of insects that had lost their queen. "Presumably, in the spaceship the elites of their hive had been killed through some bacteria or virus or something," he says. "So, it left this vast majority of directionless drones, like termites. I hadn't made the mental connection that they were essentially insects. And then when I made the connection it was like, 'Oh, okay, hang on. Let's start again" (

Some species like bees become totally lost without their Queen. Maybe this is why a revolt was never attempted. Assuming there is in fact a caste system and that the Christopher Johnson may have been of a higher caste it seems fitting that he really had no regard for the safety of his own people. Until he sees that they are being experimented on. He stood there and looked at the dissection table for quite a while. Bullets were flying everywhere. It is after that he says he must save his people. Remember when you first see Christopher Johnson he is trying to have another Prawn hide the fuel canister. Knowing that if the MNU finds it they will arrest or kill the Prawn hiding it. This shows me he had no regard for other Prawn at the time.

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Thank for the post, it's excellent.
The goverment sucks in many ways, but why they move all the Prawns to a new camp, they we were good there ?

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