District 9: The Weaponry of Change
South African director Neil Blomkamp’s global sci-fi sensation District 9 is gearing up for it’s second life as it moves toward the home market and inevitably does the awards circuit for its incredible special effects. Much has been made of the politics of the film; inevitable considering its brazen treatment of apartheid
and handling of some stereotypes (the depiction of Nigerians as merciless, cutthroat baddies). What is overlooked about the film is the hopeful message of integration leading to empowerment and ultimately serving as a catalyst for real change.
When we first meet Wikus Van De Merwe (played brilliantly by Sharlto Copley), he has recently been promoted and is now the charge of relocating the ‘Prawns’, crustacean-like aliens, out of the township of District 9. The District in question is unquestionably a stand-in for white-anxiety about the living conditions inside the
townships during apartheid. The Prawns are depicted as vile, feeding not only on the scraps of industrial waste, but resorting to appalling violence. They are under constant policing with captors operating under the directive to confiscate all weapons; weapons that are in fact useless without alien DNA to operate them.
Van De Merwe uncovers a shanty in which the Prawns (an invective, rather than classification of species) are creating a mysterious, black fluid. The agent accidentally ingests the toxic material. From there begins the manifestation of white-horror from this
'exposure’; Van De Merwe begins mysteriously bleeding out of his nose and his ‘otherness’ culminates in the growth of an alien-hand on his human body. His co-workers and those in his life are terrified by what he is becoming. He has been marred. What is also uncovered is the fact that the exposure has allowed Van De Merwe to effectively utilize alien weaponry; he has become empowered.
Van De Merwe has become both a possible tool to be used in war and an outcast to be detained. The fear of his integration into District 9 culminates in a concocted news broadcast that flashes he has contracted a ‘virus’ from copulating with Prawns. The dated and damaging stereotypes by white anti-apartheidists about contracting HIV through inter-racial (or inter-special) sex could not be more readily apparent.
Now that Van De Marwe is empowered with the ability to utilize alien-technology, the tools to save both himself and the Prawns are laid bare. The alien-hand has become his boon. Without detailing t
he remainder of the extended chase and the exciting, extremely violent denouement, what is notable is this: Van De Marwe forges a partnership with the Prawns after this exposure, tossing aside his clipboard and seeing the aliens as individuals as opposed to a species. He has transcended mere empathy as he can literally feel pain in this unified limb.
The film employs a veneer of the Joseph Conradesque ‘white hero as bringer of light to the ‘noble savage’ mythology firmly rooted in colonial guilt. However, upon further examination, what is both most novel and transgressive is that rather than change the aliens to empower a civilization, Van De Merwe is not only changed by them, but into them. He must incorporate their physicality in order to become heroic. It goes without saying the film is worth a rental. With an all South African cast and the film shot entirely in South Africa, the film could be a push
for the South African film economy While the film is more entertaining than transformative, it certainly heralds a shift in the global cinematic landscape of which the future of South African cinema is clearly a part.