District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009) and Hannah Arendt (von Trotta, 2012) both explore how fear and bureaucracy can lead people to do or ignore horrible things. Both try to understand why it happens again and again. And both Hannah Arendt and District 9 tackle the impact of fear and mob mentality, looking at how quickly a group can turn on one of their own the moment he or she is perceived to be different and therefore a threat.
After watching Hannah Arendt, I wrote about how it showed the intensely negative reaction to Arendt’s book as another example of people unquestioningly accepting the commands of others; acting in fundamentally the same way as the Nazi, Eichmann. For me it was a reminder that people never really change, only their circumstances change. District 9 hit a similar note.
Little CJ: “We are the same”
Wikus Van De Merwe: “We’re not the fucking same” (Blomkamp, 2009)
We like to think that we’re better, more civilized than the people who commit these terrible acts. District 9 (and Hannah Arendt) force us to admit that, for the most part, we’re exactly the same. In this way Sharlto Copley’s Wikus could be seen as a metaphor for humanity; believing ourselves to be superior when in reality we’re merely lucky not to find ourselves part of a less ‘civilized’ society.
Blomkamp highlights this in two scenes in particular. In the first, Wikus is tested at the MNU headquarters and government officials decide that the only use left for him is as a collection of harvested organs. Before he escapes the scientists attempt to remove his still beating heart. The line that his father-in-law speaks as he gives the go ahead to the scientists to proceed with Wikus’ dissection typifies the human attitude to the aliens:
“What happens to him isn’t important. What’s important is that we harvest from him what we can right now” (Blomkamp, 2009)
Later in the film Wikus is kidnapped again, this time by the Nigerians in District 9. They too see him only as a vessel of useful DNA. And once again they try to cut out his heart.
Although the MNU scientists would undoubtedly see themselves as better, more civilised, than the Nigerian criminals, Blomkamp actively refutes that though these two scenes. And in fact their evil could be seen as greater, because they refuse to acknowledge it, instead insisting that they’re acting for the best. Another moment which metaphorically deals with how people, bureaucrats in particular, feel that they have no choice but to carry out these terrible acts happens when Wikus is held by the MNU scientists. In his weakened state he’s forced to shoot the unarmed alien in the testing facility, despite his protests. And even at the end of the film, nothing has really changed. District 9 is gone, but the aliens are still trapped in the even worse District 10.
A couple of the specifics that stand out in Blomkamp’s film. The sense of uncertainty at the start of the film is palpable; other characters talk about Wikus in the past tense and about the ‘investigation’, but we then cut back to Wikus himself. There’s no clear delineation of then and now. In a similar way, slightly later in the film when he’s been infected and gone on the run, we feel that the MNU must eventually find Wikus, because they’re telling his story, yet we don’t know when and how it’s going to happen. Blomkamp adeptly creates a sense of tension and foreboding.
Although the film suffers from a touch of a White Messiah Complex, Wikus’ flawed and complex character is fascinating to watch. He’s a fundamentally selfish person whose actions, good and bad, are solely motivated by his desire to be healed. He sees the aliens only for what they can give to him and becomes the ‘self-sacrificing hero’ only when he has no other choice. And Blomkamp infuses these shades of grey throughout the film, showing us the different groups of humans (the MNU, the Nigerians, Wikus himself) as flawed, afraid and selfish; none are good, but we understand at least partially why they behave in the way that they do. This detailed storytelling is borne out too in the smaller touches that hint at how the humans oppress the aliens; the requirement that aliens have a ‘license for a child’, the fact that everyone in the bureaucracy that is supposed to look after them still uses the derogatory term ‘prawn’, and the humour with which Wikus destroys the alien eggs.
Another aspect of the film, which I liked but others have considered a plot hole, is the lack of explanation about why the aliens with their supposedly superior technology never use it to attack the humans. Blomkamp doesn’t reveal their motives for this, and he chooses not to explain how the aliens arrived at Earth and why they were in such a terrible state when they did.
I enjoyed the opportunity to speculate. I interpreted these aliens to be the lowest of their own society, the workers who’ve been used and oppressed by their ‘betters’ for generations and then been stranded, or maybe left behind, when they were of no more use. But instead of finding their saviours on Earth, they’ve only found new masters to put them down.
A question often asked about slavery is why didn’t (and don’t) slaves rebel more often? How could they allow themselves to be treated in such a way without fighting back. In his book From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World, Eugene D. Genovese writes:
What right, he asks, have we to expect oppressed peoples in the past to spill their blood on the barricades when they were fully aware of the hopelessness of victory and of the terrible consequences of defeat? (Genovese, 1992)
This comes to the crux of it. The aliens may have some superior weaponry and they may even be able to take over Johannesburg. But there seems to be no way that they could get much further than that without the international military forces of a world terrified of an alien ‘invasion’ sweeping down and obliterating them from existence. It seems that they have no choice but to live in fear in a world that is terrified of them.
Blomkamp, N. (2009) District 9, TriStar Pictures
von Trotta, M., (2012) Hannah Arendt
The Messiah Complex, New York Times, Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/opinion/08brooks.html [Accessed on 10 January 2016]
Genovese, E. D., (1992) From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press