""When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet."
They are nasty. They are not like us. We fear them for their inscrutability and their brutishness. They may be inscrutable because we fear them, and they may be brutish because we have forced them into difficult circumstances; but the most difficult thing is realizing that this failure in convivencia is ours, not theirs.
The aliens –- “prawns” –- in District 9 are brutish. The first time we see them, they’re ripping dead animals to pieces, and one of them is bludgeoning something off screen. They wear tattered scraps of cast-off clothing and they live in pitiful shacks. Who couldn’t help but feel contempt for these creatures?
It is a challenging but cunningly insightful statement on race relations. I thought continuously of a passage from Richard Wright’s profound Native Son. Bigger Thomas, a poor African-American, is arrested for one murder he did not commit and one murder that he did. His attorney explains that, yes, Bigger is a violent, cruel person, but only because he has been denied every opportunity to improve himself: because you have forced me to love in the jungle, says his lawyer of Bigger, I have sharpened my claws.
So, in the opening scenes, we see the MNU agents shaking down the prawns, forcing them to relocate, and some of the prawns react with swift, shocking violence, which is greeted in kind. The MNU agents are tense and obviously afraid; they don’t understand these creatures, and twenty years of ghettoization has not improved their understanding. The aliens have not been given the opportunity to develop the mental and cultural tools they need to survive in this shocking new world, and they are punished for it.
The movie is based on real events that really happened, and continued to happen, as late as 1994, if you can believe that, and the repercussions are still felt; there was inter-ethnic violence in nearby townships during the shooting of the film.
The film does not flinch from the difficult questions it asks of its viewers, and its moral, while on the surface a bit banal, is none the less true: the aliens are here, whatever color, religion, or sexual orientation they are. Learn to live together, or face the horrific consequences of interfaction violence, ghettoization, and discrimination.
This is the highest potential of science-fiction: to hold up the mirror to life in a way that mainstream art cannot, to employ allegory to elucidate our own failings and potentials in a visceral, ineluctable way.
That the movie succeeds as a movie is icing on the cake. The plot is riveting, the characters sympathetic. The script suffices. The action is the most tautly directed, the most intense that I’ve seen since Children of Men. The special effects, which are almost photorealistic, are one of the rare examples of the effects serving the film rather than vice versa.
The film feels the most naked when it condescends to become a sci-fi thriller, when the villains show that they’re villains. But that is the worst complaint you can lodge against it: it sometimes becomes a movie.
The allegory is so important and so effective that the mechanics of action-climax-denouement seem a hassle. But if you compare this work of art to a film that nails those mechanics, while neglecting any opportunities at greater meaning (starts with “s”, ends with “tar trek”), then the latter comes up empty and unaffecting.
See this movie; see it often; think about things bigger than yourself.