Sci-Fi Friday Commentary: 'District 9' and Aliens

Sep 8, 2017

Murray State Professor Andrew Black talks District 9 ahead of tonight's Sci-Fi Friday showing.

2017 marks the fourth entry in the WKMS contribution to Murray State’s Cinema International Series that culminates with Sci-Fi Friday. Whether a coincidence or not, there’s been a really compelling string of consistency behind their choices: going from Mars Attacks, to Blade Runner, to last year with Alien. Each film is about an outside force that doesn’t belong, and the people who try to deal with it. In the least serious of the bunch, Mars Attacks presents aliens as little green jerks with big heads and ray guns, causing trouble just because they can. In Alien, it’s a force of otherworldly menace, not remotely human and totally monstrous: nature’s perfect killing machine. In Blade Runner, the problem is that what is “alien” is indistinguishable from what is “human,” as the hunted androids are the “aliens” that we have created and can’t control – androids may dream of electric sleep, but how do we that we aren’t? And then there are movies like E.T., in which a confused but noble alien helps humans come to terms with everything good about being human – compassion, identification, bravery. If you don’t tear up when E.T., upon leaving Earth, touches his heart and says “ouch,” then you may be an android.

This week’s movie, District 9 uses those terrifying and confusing, or even hopeful, prospects,  and deals with them in the most fascinatingly mundane way. Throwing us into a world that it only barely explains, the aliens have been here for a while, and by here we find that the home they’ve landed on is Johannesburg, South Africa. They’re neither magical nor killing machines; they’re called “prawns,” and they eat cat food, are looking for some kind of fluid to get home, and possess no language that humans can understand. The prawns aren’t like the parasitic extraterrestrial of Alien, however, and they’re not the adorable, ready-to-be-a-popular-stuffed-animal E.T. of E.T. They seem to have thoughts, desires, identities, even a culture. And therefore rather than celebrated as weird and wonderful, or potentially terrifying as predators, they’re tolerated – put away in a government camp outside of the city. When they’re given the title of “prawn,” it’s a name used by humans that reflect what they look like – the “Parktown Prawn,” an African variety of cricket that is – the Wikipedia tells me – “desirable in gardens, but . . . unwelcome visitors indoors.” Compared to insects, they’re more or less treated like bigger versions of them. And that description suggests why they can’t be allowed in the city, but must be kept outside of it. They are, quite simply, alienated.

That the film is set in South Africa draws our attention to a dark history of race. This was the country that, for years, was ravaged by apartheid – a system of institutionalized, legal racial segregation that spanned the second half of the twentieth century and only ended in 1991. That South African politics and its history are on director Neil Blomkampf’s mind is obvious, and it continues to be in his last two movies – Elysium and Chappie ­– that also explore racial and social inequality through science fiction, futuristic scenarios. And therefore District 9 is an uncanny and probably sadly realistic vision of another side of the possibility of extra terrestrial encounter: the bureaucratic, organizational side; questions of citizenship and survival; the potential of having to live in the same neighborhood as a “prawn.”

The great Palestinian literary critic and cultural thinker Edward Said wrote often about the “other” – that is someone who we identify beginning with difference, and who define ourselves apart from. In Western history, explorers and colonialists often saw indigenous others as inferior, but they also saw them as exotic, almost human, and they classified them almost like they’d describe a beautiful flower, rather than  human subject  – it’s, as one critic said –  when “people who are observed are overshadowed or eclipsed by the observers.” The other is defined by their strangeness, by their difference. The problem of sympathizing with, of understanding, the “other,” is caught up in a vision of what is its opposite – normal, perhaps – the “us” to their “them.”

To us as viewers, like the characters of District 9, the prawns are a weird “them” that we can’t totally understand. They don’t exist in the typical “alien” movie stereotypes or scenarios of an invading monster. But while I’ll avoid spoilers, one thing the film does is force us to think about becoming an “other” in the most severe way you can think of. About no longer being the “us,” and becoming the “them,” about going from observer to observed. And I might have undersold the way the film works as a suspenseful action movie. It’s a remarkable, exciting, imaginative movie: one that takes our inherent fear of aliens of all kinds and asks us questions about the acts of alienation that happen every day.