August 14, 2009
‘District 9’ not so alien for Jews
“District 9” is not a Jewish film per se, but the plight of the aliens echo themes Jews can readily identify with, from intolerance and hate aimed at immigrants to welcoming the stranger and seeking justice.
Many who’ve seen the film have drawn parallels to apartheid, primarily because the setting is Johannesburg. But the filmmakers spell out in Sony’s “District 9” press notes that there is no direct, intentional apartheid metaphor. Instead, they say, the film is a commentary on xenophobia and immigration, paralleling issues Jews, Sudanese refugees and others living in exile have had to content with after taking up residence in foreign countries.
“In South Africa, we have to deal with issues that generally people around the world try to sweep under the rug,” said Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus van der Merwe, referring to the country’s large immigrant population.
In “District 9,” individual aliens are given human names like Christopher Johnson, a la Ellis Island, and the aliens’ race as a whole is never named. Instead, humans use the pejorative “prawns,” referring to the aliens as creatures or animals, much the way Nazis dehumanized Jews by drawing comparisons to disease-carrying rodents. Other Nazi parallels include Nuremberg-like signs forbidding aliens from sitting in a particular place, engaging in a particular activity, etc.
In an alternative 1981, the aliens’ ship came to a halt over—of all places—Johannesburg. The aliens arrived as refugees – hungry, sick and homeless. In the intervening years, Multi-National United (MNU), a private international security company, took charge of the aliens and keeps them corralled in a concentration camp known as District 9, where they scavenge through piles of garbage looking for food and technology. Although reviled by humans for their crustacean-like appearance and cultural differences (one commentator mentions “the prawn doesn’t understand [concepts like] ownership”), MNU wants to reverse-engineer the aliens’ advanced weapons and adapt it for human use. The rub: the weapons only respond to alien DNA.
Shot documentary style and using news reports to punctuate a sense of reality, the film recounts an operation that evicts the aliens from their District 9 shantytown and moves them to the tent city of District 10. Wikus, an ordinary MNU bureaucrat who loathes the “prawns” as much as the next human, has been given charge of the operation by his father-in-law, an MNU executive who’d just as soon see him killed by the aliens. During the operation, Wikus is inadvertently exposed to an alien fluid—a fuel source for the spaceship that’s taken the aliens 20 years to distill—which begins to slowly change his DNA. Think Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” including losing body parts (fingernails, teeth) and the accompanying psychological ramifications.
Wikus is suddenly able to use the alien weapons, producer Peter Jackson says, and he becomes “the most important person on the planet.” In classic sci-fi fashion, the father-in-law orders Wikus’ vivisection so MNU can find a biological method of making the alien weapons accessible to humans. Wikus escapes, naturally, and flees to District 9, where the aliens help hide him from MNU strike teams, risking their own lives in the process.
The aliens have all but lost hope after more than 20 years of imprisonment, dealing with MNU troops who think nothing of shooting a “prawn” in the head. But they welcome Wikus, the man who just days earlier had ordered the destruction of their unhatched young. Wikus strikes a bargain with their leader, Christopher Johnson – if he helps retrieve the fuel, which is now in MNU’s possession, the aliens can help make him fully human again.
“District 9,” the first feature film from Neill Blomkamp, invites some comparisons to the 1988 film and television series “Alien Nation,” in which an alien slave race seeks refuge on Earth and encounters discrimination while attempting to integrate into human society (e.g., in “Alien Nation” the Newcomers get drunk on sour milk, while in “District 9” the aliens are hooked on cat food). But “District 9” is closer to what one might expect from humans if aliens were to actually land on earth – specifically, the what’s-in-it-for-us mentality.
The film has its minor flaws—for instance, it’s never explained how the humans and aliens can understand one another, yet not be able to speak the other’s langauge. But at a time when most science-fiction films are either remakes, reboots or adapted from toy lines, it’s great to get an original work that features strong characters and relevant social issues and includes a bit of snarky humor along the way to balance things out.