District 9: The Banality of Normal
Warning: Spoiler Alert. This review sketches out aspects of the District 9 film plot. Those of you who are sensitive to such things may want to read it after viewing the movie.
In District 9, a man named Wikus, who is firmly rooted in mundane human existence, is given an extraordinary opportunity to transcend his physical form and step outside his ordinary life into an alien world, but he never rises to the opportunity. Even as he sees more deeply into the atrocities committed by his human brethren, Wikus is single-mindedly and even cruelly devoted to escaping the alien transformation and regaining his human body and life, never once pausing to consider embracing it.
Wikus, our all-too-human protagonist, has been poisoned while collecting alien contraband in a Bantustan called District 9, where the alien "prawns" who have been stranded on our planet for twenty years are homed. Wikus becomes the first person to survive alien "DNA" combining with his own, and becomes what one character calls a perfect "balance" of both. However, little about him actually changes but his arm — mutated into a tentacled appendage like the prawns’ — and eventually his skin. Nevertheless, he gains the ability to use the aliens’ weapons, which other humans cannot, even when using his normal hand. Somehow he intuits the more advanced technology’s interfaces, which are suitably flashy and strange, though reminiscent of a highly developed IPod XenoTouch. Nothing is explained about how Wikus, with his fully human personality and emotions, so quickly adapts to the mental aspects of the tech. As he uses them, he never seems to falter in his humanity for a moment, even becoming more noticeably human in his expressions and motions as he navigates within the alien mecha in the third act — when the giant robot suit in question is used in the way a drunk uses the lamppost to fit in a few more action sequences.
Within District 9, criminal Nigerian gangs supply the prawns with weapons and food, while at the same time occasionally preying on them in order to consume their bodies, which the Nigerians believe will transfer the prawns’ powers to them. When Wikus attempts to buy weapons to defend himself against the private agency hunting him down to vivisect his hybrid body, the leader of the gang, perhaps the only character in the film to show a dedicated interest in obtaining a posthuman status for himself, decides he must eat Wikus’ transformed arm, adding more heavies to the long chase scene which comprises most of the film.
There are hints of a possibility of a very interesting movie here, though sadly the movie rarely explores its own interesting questions. For example, the prawns seem more disposed toward altruism, compassion, and forgiveness than bad ol’ H. sapiens rooted in their normalcy. The aliens are certainly more compassionate than Wikus, who isn’t even a natural-born government thug; he got his job in District 9 thanks to nepotism, though he embraced it as a game and — even later when he rejects some of its torturous excesses — never seems to fully disengage from his previous bigoted thinking. We only really get to know one alien — called Christopher Johnson, a name presumably assigned by the humans who love to surround the prawns with paperwork — but he is quick to offer to help Wikus, provided Wikus helps him steal back the fuel he needs to activate his hidden shuttlecraft. He and his son, lil’ CJ, even continue to help Wikus after the hybrid attempts to steal this shuttlecraft, which Christopher worked to fix for twenty years, while lil’ CJ pleads with him not to leave Christopher behind.
What if the Nigerian gunrunners had eaten the arm and gained the power of… kindness? Well, that may have been a movie that really tussled with what it means to be human, and what it means to be inhuman.
Perhaps the best example of how the humans in the movie stubbornly, stupidly remain dug in against any transition to posthumanism comes early on, as we see Multi-National United (a catch-all security/scientific contractor firm in charge of the aliens) going through District 9 demanding the aliens’ "scrawl" on forms notifying them of imminent eviction to what Wikus later casually admits to his prawn pal Christopher are concentration camps. Faced with the greatest mystery and challenge to self-identity humankind has ever encountered, our species has spent thirty years mostly wrapping it up in red tape to keep it contained and shooting whatever wriggles free.
It’s the banality of human evil, sure, but there is no thematic counterbalance. Like many minor-league armbreakers for the state, Wikus is a sentimentalist. We’re told that he believes that gifts are more legitimate when made with one’s own hands. Of course, Wikus has an alien hand. So prepare not to be very shocked at one of District 9’s final images: a "prawn" (Wikus, fully transformed) making a flower out of scrap metal. Hope in the ruins and all that rot, you know.District 9 is all about the ruins, but where is the hope?
Photos courtesy of Columbia TriStar Pictures