Set in contemporary Johannesburg, District 9 asks important and difficult questions about our relationship to the “other” in ways only a science-fiction film set in South Africa could. And while it eventually succumbs to certain action film clichés, the film’s premise is certainly worth repeated viewing, contemplation and deep discussion.
Through the brilliant use of documentary-style interviews and news footage, director Neill Blomkamp weaves together the background narrative and the general cultural milieu of the present. In the 1980s, a monstrous alien spacecraft inexplicably stopped over Johannesburg, remaining inanimately suspended over the city for over twenty years—a new and slightly intimidating addition to the city’s skyline. After discovering about a million malnourished aliens—or “prawns,” as they’re derisively known—onboard, South African authorities establish a militarized district to contain the alien population. While initially a humanitarian gesture, District 9 becomes a sprawling slum and the shiftless aliens are left to sift through piles of garbage for food and other necessities. The longer the prawns stay, the more destructive their behavior and the more uncomfortable the human community in the city becomes with their presence. A forced evacuation to a new facility further from the city is planned, spearheaded by Multi-National United (MNU), a private contractor and weapons manufacturer.
Heading up MNU’s mission is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a blundering executive who’s married to the CEO’s daughter. The cameras follow Wikus as he attempts to serve eviction notices to the aliens without speaking their language, all the while indicting his benign contempt for the “prawns” and the conditions in which they are living. At one point, after having found a pod of infant aliens inside a shack, he somewhat gleefully refers to the popping noise they make as they are aborted in a blast from a flame-thrower (“… like popcorn!”). He has little regard for the aliens and doesn’t seem to identify with them whatsoever—all of which changes dramatically over the course of the film as Wikus is forced by circumstances to re-establish his relationship with the “other.”
When discussing the “other,” we are generally referring to human beings who are notably different from ourselves. As Christians, we explore what it means to understand and live out of the fundamental belief that all people are made in the image of God and that, no matter what they’ve done, they can never fully extinguish that likeness. What would happen, though, if we were asked to extend our altruism beyond our own galaxy? How would our theology change were we to consider another part of the created order previously unknown? This is one of the intriguing issues presented by District 9.
Unfortunately, if human history is any indication, we would probably respond in much the same way as the all-too-familiar society represented in the film. Indeed, the setting of South Africa inevitably invites allusions to Apartheid, the oppressive system run by white Afrikaners that forced black South Africans into special districts to contain and control them. South Africa isn’t alone in its systematic oppression; almost all cultures have, at one time or another, developed ways to provide one group with privileges while denying them to others.
What then? Interestingly, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides fodder for alternative responses. Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town who oversaw the Commission in the 1990s, offers a uniquely African contribution when he talks about ubuntu—a word he loosely translates, “… my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” He explains:
A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.
In a way, Blomkamp ups the ante and focuses the issue of ubuntu by choosing space aliens to represent the “other” in District 9:
I thought with the aliens, you’d think, “I don’t want to sit next to that on the bus, they look insane, they look barbaric.” And then by the end of the film, you’ve done a 180 on your perception of them. And that’s why their design reflects that. They are gross. They are insect-like, which represents this sort of hive-structure society that they come from, and then they have a human sort of geometry to their face and eyes, so that at some point in the film, you can feel that there’s a sentient creature behind those eyes. So they have to have both of those two things, which is a bit of a balancing act.
Having such a distinct “other” provides the opportunity to examine what we actually believe about interacting with those who are different than we—whether that difference is determined by race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion or, in the realm of the film, other life forms. Given both ancient and recent history, such examination seems both worthwhile and crucial for ongoing conflict resolution in our neighborhoods and around the world.
- Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma