Monday, August 31, 2009

‘If 6 Was 9’ – A Santiago Ramos Review

Following is a Catholic Key review of ‘District 9’:

‘If 6 Was 9’

Review by Santiago Ramos

A fable is the representation of a moral truth in the form of a story. The fabulist already knows the truth before he sets out to write the fable. A drama, on the other hand, is an experiment with human nature: the dramatist drops the human subject into situations that demand more strength and character than quotidian life does, and by imagining the ways in which the human subject deals with it, the dramatist reveals a little about what humanity is made of. A science fiction story falls in the latter category, the only difference being that in a science fiction story, the situation that the human subject is placed in bends or breaks or extrapolates from the science that we know and the technology that we have already developed.

Having listened to the hype, I was skeptical going into District 9, for I was expecting a fable. I knew that the film would be about a refugee camp-turned-slum full of 1.8 million aliens from outer space, brought to Earth in a ship that hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa. The camp/slum is known as District 9, and the film begins with a public project, fueled by human disgust with the aliens, to forcibly relocate the extraterrestrials to the more concentration-campish locale of District 10, 140 kilometers away. Logically, I expected a fable about apartheid, and, since I already know that apartheid was a great evil, I grew restless. I would have been even more restless had I known beforehand that Cape Town, South Africa, once contained a so-called District 6, and that the black population therein—around 60,000—was forcibly moved to a place called Cape Flats. A horror like apartheid doesn’t need a sci-fi fable re-telling, I thought; it needs a Nelson Mandela biopic, or else the type of treatment that Steven Spielberg gave the Holocaust in Schindler’s List.

I was wrong, on both counts. District 9 is not a fable, it is a science fiction drama, and precisely because of this, it is a better apartheid film than it could otherwise have been. It gets to the heart of the affliction that is racism: one group cannot see, cannot recognize, the humanity of the other group. And when you can’t recognize the humanity of another, you don’t treat him or her with dignity.

The drama, which is told in a fake-documentary, cinema verite style, works in this way: Take your urbane 21st century citizens of Johannesburg, and thrust upon them the burden of caring for one million marooned extraterrestrials of mysterious origin who are completely dependent upon them. The extraterrestrials are derisively called “prawns” in the film, because of their likeness to a species of cricket found in South Africa, but they also carry just enough human traits—intelligence, language, care for children—that they cannot be treated like inferior life forms. But their refugee camp becomes a slum over the course of two decades, and it is ignored by the urbane citizens in the same half-conscious, half-guilty way that we ignore our own inner cities. Eventually, the urbane citizens of Johannesburg tire of the sometimes raucous and riotous behavior of their alien guests, and ask for a government plan of relocation.

The “prawns” aren’t completely innocent, either: they’ve brought from the ship—which, by the way, remains suspended above Johannesburg, empty of inhabitants, throughout the duration of the film—some weapons that are more powerful than any on Earth, and which are synced up to their own biology, so that no human could use them. The private defense contractor Multinational United (MNU) has for many years tried to understand how to use these weapons, to no avail. The MNU, too, would like to see District 9 evacuated, so that they can send their agents to snoop around for more weapons and clues on how to use them. Along with MNU, which is an institutional evil, there are also a band of rogue Nigerian warlord opportunists who set up camp in District 9, buying weapons from the aliens in the hopes of learning how to use them, and making money by selling cat food (which the prawns are obsessed with) and beef.

The brilliant touch comes in placing Wirkus van der Merwe, played by the talented South African actor Sharlto Copley, at the center of the drama. Wirkus is effectively middle-management at MNU, and his promotion to lead the District 9 evacuation procedures is a great career success—the second biggest day after his wedding day, as he puts it (his tender love for his wife becomes an important part in the plot). Wirkus is excitable and quirky; he is like Michael Scott from The Office, but with a far more dangerous job. And he is not as nice as Michael Scott; he’s also slightly disgusted by prawns. He is also weak: early on we see how little control he actually has over the MNU troops which will be used in the evacuation.

But Wirkus, through the type of freak accident that tends to happen in a sci fi movie (and this is one of the things that the genre is good for) becomes slowly transformed into a prawn in the days that follow the evacuation (which, not surprisingly, ends up a small massacre). Wirkus doesn’t walk, he runs several miles in alien moccasins, because he is now a hunted, wanted man—with his alien arm, he can operate the coveted alien weapons. The MNU and the Nigerian warlords both want him for that reason (though the warlords are less sophisticated—they want to eat him). The place he goes to hide is District 9. It’s there that he meets Christopher, the alien who has, for the twenty years that the prawns have been on Earth, worked on plans to relaunch the hovering mothership and go home.

We already know the moral truth going in, but District 9, shows us the how and the why behind the prior moral problem, and helps to see how solidarity between peoples can be generated.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He will begin studies toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College this Fall.