Posted Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009, at 5:20 PM
I caught a matinee of District 9 today with a friend who is a devoted sci-fi buff, and who spent several years living in South Africa (in the post-apartheid aughts). Afterward, we agreed we'd had a blast—unlike Dan Engber, whose review is here —and then got to the harder work of puzzling over the film's politics. That District 9 grapples with apartheid is irrefutable, but what does it have to say on the subject? (Spoilers hover above the next paragraph, their alien turbines idling.)
My friend was troubled by the depiction of the stranded aliens as "shiftless" "intergalactic schlubs," as Dan puts it. There's something unsavory, he argued, in director Neill Blomkamp portraying his allegorical shack dwellers as dumb, hapless, and helpless members of a community so thoroughly rent by poverty and oppression that the only hope for their betterment lies either in intervention from the outside (Wikus van der Merwe) or the lone efforts of an anomalous, intellectually advanced insider (the alien called Christopher Thompson). This logic can take on an infantilizing, unempowering aspect, he said, that denies oppressed parties agency, the ability to organize effectively from the ground up.
We were both uncertain about Blomkamp's ultimate point about miscegenation, for lack of a better word, as represented by Wikus's gooey transformation into a prawn. Right through the film's final image, Wikus regards his othering from himself as a horror he wants reversed—he fights the evil MNU not out of virtue but out of self-interest and, in the process, becomes a microcosmic model for any "native" body that fears "foreign" contamination. The transforming/transformed Wikus isn't the embodiment of post-racial harmony. Rather, the metamorphosis alienates him twice over, strands him between categories that are themselves left intact: He's not a human and he's not a "prawn," either.
That's fine—it makes him a more interesting character and District 9 a more complicated film. But while it's clear Wikus isn't a radical, Blomkamp's own position remains opaque. It occurs to me that we could easily imagine the South African Lou Dobbs, say, sympathizing with and championing the prawns—after all, they don't peskily want jobs or equal rights as citizens; they just want to wash our hands of themselves and fly on home.