I am both scare-proof and creeped-out-proof on account of a life of reading and watching science fiction and horror literature and film. So when a story or film gets under my skin I know two things right away: it will be with me a long, long time; and it is an unusual and powerful work of art. Such is my subjective measure for such things. Only a few minutes into the film and I knew District 9 deserved to be on the same shelf (in my brain) as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas; all stories that were written into the base code of my self, you could say. I loved District 9. I thought it funny, poignant, challenging, iconoclastic (of many science-fiction conventions), and thrilling. It's also extremely violent imagery, an 11 on the gross-out chart and therefore not for the squeamish and, on top of all that, it creeped me out.
This film succeeds on many fronts. Wikus van de Merwe (the person charged with issuing eviction orders to the aliens) is a brilliant character - as blissfully clueless and evil a bureaucrat as you get. His self-satisfied and gleeful description of the "popping" sounds of the alien eggs that he has just burned (as though they were so much garbage) is a scene that, even in the midst of the satirical humour, still moved me with horror and sorrow. Every example of monstrosity (whether bureaucratic or visceral, literally) served, ironically, to humanize the convincingly non-human aliens. I think the film pulls a fast one on the audience which i suspect leaves people emotionally confused if not disturbed: the aliens are disturbing and scary to look at - insectile, segmented bodies covered in chitin and filled with ichor (and what are those two pulsing lung-like extrusions in their lower abdomen? Ick!) How many of our insectophobic buttons are pushed in this film? I think the film pulls no punches in making these aliens extremely difficult to identify with. And yet, it is obvious in the first few minutes that these creatures are pathetic, oppressed and very thinly disguised representatives of any oppressed group in human history. How many of us overcome the distasteful imagery (and the conventions of film) to grant this meaning to these "people"? Or do we suspend judgment, maintain cool distance to see what will happen hopeful that the film will give us something prettier to identify with?
The reward for overcoming this challenge to our training is the simultaneously poignant and gripping sequence in which the wee ship is rising to safety, intercut with the parent and child looking exhausted, fearful, worried - as any parent and child would be in such circumstances. The film succeeds here in being completely unpredictable - will they make it? Will they get blown out of the air at the last second? You'll have to go see to find out. Suffice to say, i didn't breathe for a good few minutes.
I also think the film is messing with expectations of heroes with the transformation of Wikus van de Merwe from preening, naively self-congratulatory aparatchik to self-sacrificing defender. (Incidentally, "van de Merwe" is a common Afrikaner name which is also part of a joking tradition akin to "Newfie" jokes. Of "Van" or "So-and-so van de Merwe" are told many of the same jokes of buffoonery, stupidity and nonsense that you find in many cultures of the world. This is a strong clue to the satirical bent of this film that is perhaps a subtlety lost on most international audiences. Likewise, though most audiences are likely, I hope, to see the comparison to apartheid South Africa, there are numerous references, both subtle and not, to the history of apartheid, not least the name of the film.) The story manages almost to run its entire course before van de Merwe, fleeing for safety, finally makes a pro-active gesture, finally transforms from flight to fight. And, while his body is most alien, his actions are the most humane. Is that what the film is, perhaps rather pessimistically, saying: that to find our humanity in a world in which genocide and corporate greed have been normalized, we must become, to our fellow citizens, virtual aliens? I am certainly reminded of when i returned to Canada from a youth exchange program with Haiti. I was 19 and i returned asking questions about poverty and our (i.e. mine and Canada's) implication in that poverty. More than a few friends abandoned me with one literally saying, "chris, when you left you were normal and now that you're back you're a marxist." And i'm not even sure i'd read Marx at that point. I do fancy that I returned somewhat more humanized. And as tentative as that might have been, it was still profoundly threatening to many of my peers. Of course, i found new peers.
While this film is not for the squeamish, the visceral violence is all contextual and sound, as far as the narrative is concerned. And, like many such stories, the visceral violence exists in contrast with the more subtle (and entirely more horrifying violence - at least it should be more horrifying) casual brutality of the corporate weapons profiteers - willing to experiment, Nazi-like, on living creatures; willing to murder with ease to advance their greed; willing to commit genocide to win their comfort and power. How does that bureaucratic and corporate greed and horror compare to dismembered body parts, blood and ichor? The latter is gross, distasteful, stomach-churning, perhaps. But the former should chill us down to our bones. Does it? This storytelling tactic reminds me of Todd Solondz’s movie Happiness which I found a wickedly clever film that played a fantastic trick on the viewer. It tells a number of stories of unhappy lives using a subtle, somewhat wicked satire - akin to the subtle comedy of Chekhov. What happens to the characters is awful and yet, they are grown-ups who, arguably, have made the proverbial beds in which they lie. But in the midst of the comic misfortune is a story of real horror. While the film has us amused by the stories of adult misfortune, it gives us a story, no different in the telling, of true horror. Just what do we find ourselves laughing at in this story? How quickly do we distinguish the satire from the horror? The film is a test. And, while I think I “passed”, it has been over ten years since I saw Happiness and I can’t claim that I haven’t conveniently revised my memory. I do think that since seeing Happiness I have been more mindful about how film and art plays with my emotions.
And my emotions were disturbed by this story on many levels, not least of which was how the audience reacted - which was with silence. In the first half hour to 45 minutes of the film i seemed to be the only one laughing. I figure that the humour was either too subtle or that people were utterly ignorant of the history of apartheid South Africa - though i think you could substitute knowledge of any authoritarian/draconian regime (or read Kafka, for heaven's sake) in order to see the mocking farce with which the film portrays bureaucrats and pundits alike. I grant that as an anti-apartheid activist throughout the 80s and early 90s and as someone who visited townships while the apartheid state still existed, i am not your average viewer. However, the satire that courses through this film shouldn't need that much historical knowledge or experience in order to be appreciated. Of course, maybe i'm wrong about that.