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Movie Review: District 9 (spoilers)

August 21, 2009
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A problem inherent in all science fiction and fantasy stories is the difficulty in achieving the suspension of disbelief.  Such stories, by their nature, present audiences with situations that are highly unbelievable, if not outright impossible.  The unbelievability tends to separate the audience from the characters in the story.  A good genre-story compensates for this tendency by making sure that all the elements of the story, other than the fictional science, are as realistic as possible.  The most important element for the story tellers to get right is characterization because the plot and setting of a sci fi or fantasy story are likely to be wholly unrealistic.  The characters are all the audience has to connect with.  Great sci fi such as the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica or the original Star Trek succeed because the characters are compelling and believable.

Not so with District 9.

D9 takes place in a world in which a huge alien spaceship arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa twenty years before the story begins.  The spaceship, which floats by some unknown mechanism over the city, had been populated by approximately a million creatures, which we named “Prawns”,  who were starving to death.  Apparently the ship had suffered some sort of catastrophic mishap.  South Africa moved the aliens from the apparently inoperable spaceship, to an area on the edge of Johannesburg, the eponymous District 9, in order to provide food and humanitarian assistance to the aliens; however the South Africans were unable or unwilling to provide more than bare subsistence to the aliens, and kept them segregated in District 9 in slum  conditions.   The aliens have learned to understand English and the humans to understand the Prawns’ clicking language, and yet almost no cultural understanding of who the Prawn are and what they want seems to exist.  The experts speculate that the surviving Prawns are only low-level workers with no extant leadership.   The Prawns seem to have a limited ability to understand complex concepts.

The plot of the movie centers on the attempts of a giant corporation, Multi-National United, to do two things 1) relocate the Prawns from District 9 to a new facility farther from human populations, and 2) find a way to use Prawn weaponry that came from the spaceship (all the Prawn guns have a sort of DNA lock and can only be fired by Prawns).

I was never, at any point in the film, able to suspend my disbelief and just get into the story or care about the characters due to the constant flood of unanswered questions about the motivations and actions of the various sides of the conflict and characters on and off screen.  Here’s my list of characters (broadly defined) whose motivations escape me.


The Entire Human Race

Were mankind to make contact with an alien species that had parked a city-sized spaceship over Johannesburg I can imagine two basic reactions that people might have: extreme fear, and extreme hope (or, if you prefer, greed).

A technologically superior species is obviously something which might induce a whole lot of fear in people.  I could totally believe that the reaction of the Human Race might  be to kill the aliens, or at least allow them to die, and then try to learn from their technology so that we aren’t out-gunned if we ever encounter them again.

But I can also imagine that some humans would want to reach out to the aliens in a genuine spirit of friendship in the hopes of establishing a mutually enriching dialog between two species.  Think of how the alien technology could improve the human condition!

What I can’t even begin to imagine is that the Human Race would react with near total apathy to a first contact scenario.  Were the Human Race to make contact in the way depicted in D9, the nations of the world would be clamoring to take part in handling the situation, one way or the other.

If there were 1 million Prawns, that would mean that there are 6000 humans for every prawn.  The nations of the world could easily afford to provide decent housing and food to the entire Prawn population.  Each nation could take in a population of Prawns in proportion to that nation’s interest, size, and wealth.  The host nation could set up cultural exchange centers for the study of Prawn culture and help the Prawns better understand us.  Every university in the world would want a department of xenocultural studies and xenobiology.

Humanity could provide the Prawns housing which is not only decent, but well controlled.  Basically we could put all the Prawns in very nice, well-appointed, clean prisons.  If the Prawns could be taught human norms (like not eating people) they could be released into society.  If not, they could be kept where they, and we, were safe.  The movie, in contrast, depicts a situation in which Humankind has basically no idea what’s going on in the Prawn slums.  The notion that Humankind would accept this is just implausible.

One of the major plot points in the movie is that the Prawns are in possession of extremely powerful weapons which only they can operate.  Well, how the heck did that happen?  The humans had to move every prawn off the mothership using  human tech, presumably helicopters or something.  Am I supposed to believe that the humans didn’t notice that the Prawns had big guns with them?  These were not easily concealable items either.  For example, one was a 12 foot tall battlemech suit.

Another strange aspect of human behavior in this movie is the odd lack of human curiosity about alien tech.  Oh sure, plenty of people in the film are trying to use alien artifacts such as guns, but we aren’t shown any reason to think that humans are trying to understand how the alien tech works.  Simply being able to fire a Prawn gun, doesn’t really help a weapons manufacturer like MNU.  They need to be able to make more of them.  One might hypothesize that firing the weapons in the lab is just the first step towards understanding the weapons, but why wait 20 years to do that?  MNU could simply have paid Prawns (in their preferred currency, cat food) to fire the weapons under controlled conditions.

And why isn’t there a permanent human presence on the mothership carefully documenting and studying every aspect of it?  Understanding   anti-gravity seems like it would be a big deal.

The South African Government

Where’s the government in this movie?  Why are they letting MNU, a corporation, call the shots on the relations with the Prawns?

MNU

What’s their profit motive in administering District 9?  Who’s paying them?  If the government is paying them, then why isn’t there any government oversight?  Why not employ the Prawns in some sort of  jobs?

Wikus

I found the main character very unappealing.  I never got any sense of his humanity or of what made him tick.

The Prawns

Normally I would say that the motivations and behavior of aliens ought to be inscrutable in a sci fi story.  They are, after all, alien.  Being unlike people is the whole point.  The problem with D9 is that as we learn more about the Prawns during the course of the movie, their psychology seems more and more similar to ours, and their back story seems thereby less and less believable.

Christopher, the main prawn character, demonstrates the following capabilities in common with humanity: He understands legalisms, he shows concern for the well-being of his offspring, he engages in long term planning, he coordinates his actions with others,  he understands privacy, he practices concealment and deception, he engages in trade, he is able to trust others (even a member of an other species whom he has only recently met),  he demonstrates loyalty, he apparently feels bound by promises, he feels compassion for the suffering of others, and he feels obligated to correct mistakes that have harmed others.

Other Prawns do not demonstrate most of these traits, so there is some indication that Christopher is different than the others.  Perhaps he is a member of the leadership class.   If he is a leader, do the other prawns follow him?  If so, why hasn’t his leadership resulted in organized political action on the part of the Prawns to get what they want?  If Christopher can’t lead the other Prawns, then how did the Prawn ship operate?  An advanced civilization has to have some method of coordinating the actions of its members to achieve long range goals.  Even the less intelligent prawns are able to understand the concept of trade.  Why hasn’t some sort of politics emerged from the Prawn community?  I suppose the working-class Prawns might be incapable of being led by the leadership without some factor that the Prawns have lost, but that still leaves the question of Christopher’s behavior.

Christopher

If Christopher is capable of the kind complex social behavior he demonstrates in the last act of the film, what the heck has he been doing 20 years?  He’s in an excellent negotiating position with respect to Humankind to get what he wants.

What he wants is apparently “The Fluid”.  The fluid is a black liquid contained in certain Prawn artifacts.  Christopher is collecting the fluid one drop at a time from scraps of Prawn tech and processing it into fuel.  There’s a whole giant spaceship of Prawn tech right over his head.  All Christopher has to do is ask to be taken back up to the mothership to collect the fluid.  Any number of negotiating ploys would work here.  The simplest is probably just to imply that his species, with far superior technology, would appreciate any help Humankind could give him, leaving unsaid what his fellow Prawns might think of Humanity should they come to Earth on a rescue mission only to find that Christopher’s modest requests had been ignored.  Christopher already has a Big Stick, now all he needs to do is to talk softly.


I understand that D9 was supposed to be a metaphor for the real life refuge crises that happen after wars all over the world.  I appreciate that science fiction can be a great mirror to hold up to ourselves and see the human condition afresh.  But for a story to work as a metaphor, it first has to work on its own terms.  District 9 just doesn’t.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Flex727 permalink
    August 21, 2009 6:30 pm

    I didn’t realize this was up until you posted on Facebook. Oddly, my Google Reader didn’t indicate there was an unread post on your blog.

    You say the main human character was named Wikus and the main alien creature was named Christopher??? Well, there’s your problem right there! 🙂

    Not having seen the movie, I understand your objections about motivations and responses. I think writers get so hung up on their political message that they forget to write a story that hangs together in an ordinary way.

    Good review – thanks.

    • August 21, 2009 9:26 pm

      I posted the facebook link mere seconds after publishing the review. I’m sure the RSS reader will pick up the post soon.

  2. Debbie permalink
    August 21, 2009 8:36 pm

    I also didn’t like this movie, for similar reasons.

    For the first half hour, I had no idea at all how the two species were interacting. All the evidence said they couldn’t communicate. It was boring news reels saying nothing much at all, and the only thing that got me through was having read that the last part gets really exciting and great.

    Then we finally do get to see how they’re interacting and the humans were all horrible. One could make the point that one of the humans wasn’t that bad part of the time, but one could also make the point that he wasn’t exactly human during that time. This reminded me of how there was only one decent male character in “Thelma and Louise.” Disturbing. I know humanity can be like this, but everyone?

    One could make a case that the sort of people interested in interacting with these aliens are much more likely to be slime buckets than the average person, just like the sort of people to go exploring the new world for riches were.

    So once we see that they’re segregated and don’t understand each other and are prone to random violence against each other, it turns out that they do understand each other after all and both have reasonable needs and desires. What? Our main human character is made out to be an idiot, so that makes sense, but why are all of the humans so clueless and why can none of them interact in any decent way?

    By the end we realize that (at least some of) the aliens aren’t subhuman at all. I guess they could be trying to compare this to colonial notions that blacks were subhuman–based on the hard evidence of how alien their cultures seemed–even though blacks aren’t subhuman at all. But, as you said, surely there would be anthropologists figuring out the truth.

    So, first we have a half hour of boring, useless news reels. Then we have an hour of watching horrifying race relations. Then we have an actual interesting little plot. And then a few more useless news items.

    Another problem: Instead of leaving so much room for a sequel or ten, they should have made a whole movie.

    Another problem: Prostitutes–how did that work?

    The special effects were awesome though. This is another example of what I believe in the future will be referred to one of the crappy special effects movies from the turn of the century. However, both friends I went to see it with liked it.

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