District 9 an Underappreciated Gem

Just sign on the dotted line, sir.

District 9
Directed and Co-written by Neill Blomkamp
2009, 112 mins., Rated R (language, violence)
TriStar (in DVD)
* * * * *

What would we do if they came? What if they were a million strong, looked nothing like us, and were starving? Would we treat them like so many other “huddled masses” that washed up on our shores? Would we act out of kindness, or something more sinister?

These are among the questions raised by the superb South African science fiction film District 9. The film is set in Johannesburg, above which a large alien spacecraft has hovered for three months without a peep. Earthlings finally burn a hole in the ship and board it, where they find a million wretched, hungry creatures cowering amidst the bodies of starved comrades on an inoperable ship. The solution? You see it every day on the news—a refugee camp, the District 9 of the title.

Benevolence inexorably yields to ennui, then intolerance. After all, to human eyes the aliens are a degenerate race; they are filthy, have a habit of wandering out of the camp and engaging in crime, and their favorite cuisine is cat food. Worst of all, they breed like rabbits. Despite the high death toll in the crowded, unsanitary camp, the alien population climbs to 2.5 million. Johannesburg residents have taken to calling the aliens “prawns,” because their tentacled faces and unusually shaped bodies are suggestive of bipedal shrimp. That contemptuous label is emblematic of what residents see as the only viable solution: colonization. They want the unsavory alien brood removed from sight and responsibility.

This movie is shot as a documentary within a documentary. Multi-National United (MNU), a munitions manufacturer and wholesaler, has been awarded a contract to relocate the prawns from District 9 to a new area two hundred and forty kilometers from Johannesburg. Company high flier Wilkus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of an operation that will fast track him to top management levels if he gets it right. Part of getting it “right” means paying attention to the demands of pesky alien rights advocates, such as getting prawns to “agree” to relocation by “signing” permission forms. If an alien swats at a form it’s considered a “scrawl” of consent and each interaction is carefully documented in a highly edited video that’s essentially a made-for-TV show starring Wilkus. All goes according to plan until a sweep of the camp exposes Wilkus to a biotech device that mutates his right arm into an alien appendage. This is just what MNU has been waiting for as the aliens have weapons that are activated genetically. MNU—led by Wilkus’s own father-in-law—stands to make tens of millions if it came provide the genetic key that activates a gun that instantly liquefies its victims. And they’re perfectly willing to murder Wilkus and harvest his DNA in the name of profit. Of course Wilkus escapes—there’s no movie otherwise—and what ensues is a manhunt through Dante’s Inferno, an alien refugee camp teeming with junk, weapons stashes, and a controlling Nigerian gang that’s running its own profit scheme by selling prostitutes and cat food to the prawns for money, metals, and objects. Like Avatar, District 9 reverses the usual good guy/bad guy formula, but its variations on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis are more intelligently handled.

How many metaphors do you want to draw between District 9 and contemporary life? The story line is, most obviously, a parallel to South Africa under apartheid, but it would be far too easy to let it go at that. One of the reasons the film did not get the theatrical play it deserves is because it also touches raw nerves on issues such as Indian reservations, racial segregation, nativism, global racism, the treatment of war refugees, and disaster relief efforts. Indeed, replace Johannesburg with New Orleans, the MNU with FEMA, and the prawns with African Americans and you’ve still got the same story. In District 9 Wilkus starts to learn a few things about humanity from an alien dubbed “Christopher Johnson.” Chances are that this movie hurtled through your town at warp speed as its message that multiculturalism fares badly under capitalism isn’t a feel-good message. We suggest that you seek out the video and learn from Christopher Johnson.


PETA Actions Make a Good Cause Look Bad

Does this look like a suffering animal to you?

The word is out from Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania—Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow and we can expect six more weeks of winter. As a New Englander, this amuses me no end. Six more weeks would be mid-March and if winter is over by then, New Englanders are as happy as, well, a groundhog in a heated burrow.

This brings me to one of the sillier protests in recent memory. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has issued a call for Punxsutawney Phil to be (literally) put out to pasture. According to PETA, shy groundhogs are traumatized by their once-yearly forced public appearances and the annual ritual could be more humanely enacted with a robot groundhog. PETA points to Phil’s several attempts to escape his home in the local library as proof that inside his tubby body beats a born-free heart.

Good grief! PETA has done fine work in the past—especially in raising awareness of the cruelty of leg traps, the fur trade, and animal testing by the cosmetics industry—but organizational leaders need a serious course in power and politics. Rule one: Never expend political capital on a Straw Man debate. Rule two: Never waste it on a lost cause. Rule three: Never spend it in such a way that it will make it harder to be taken seriously in the future.

Punxsutawney Phil is the most pampered rodent on the planet. While his cousins are shivering in the wild and trying to avoid being lunch for raptors, road kill, or target practice, Phil enjoys central heating, a team of handlers, and regular meals. He lives like a rajah! Of course he tries to get out. He does so for the same reason house cats go Stalag 17 on occasion: instinct. But would Tabby be better off left to dodge foxes and Volvos?

Groundhog Day, as it’s been known in North America since the 19th century, is actually much older than the little ceremony in Pennsylvania, which dates to 1887. In many Christian lands February 2 is Candlemas, a blessing marked by the lighting of candles to commemorate the Virgin Mary’s re-emergence in society after giving birth to Jesus. (Jewish law required women to live in isolation for forty days after childbirth.) But the lighting of candles is surely a holdover from Pagan religions. Everybody is anxious for more light about this time of the year. Tribal Celts often lit bonfires for the holiday of Imbolc in the belief that they were replenishing the sun. Pre-Christian Germans held their own versions of Groundhog Day using badgers or bears. Wonder what PETA would think of that? More to the point, PETA isn’t going to reverse centuries of cultural practice.

Mostly, though, PETA’s call is bad because it makes the organization look ridiculous, thus reducing the likelihood of being taken seriously in the future when it takes on a far more worthy cause. If I didn’t know better I’d say that PETA was being run by a group of sophomores whose zeal exceeds their intellect. It’s admirable that they care so much, but for heaven’s sake—get a grip! One cannot take on every cause and retain the energy to fight the Good War when it comes along. Are there any adults at PETA HQ? Do any of them comprehend the difference between good PR and publicity at any cost?

As noted, PETA has done great things in the past. But it will not do so in the future if it insists on making itself the punch line of cheap jokes. Chill out, gang. Go to Pennsylvania, have a few laughs, and be thankful that at least one woodchuck lives better (alas!) than a lot of tenement dwellers do. For the record, my Pennsylvania grandfather was a farmer. For him woodchucks were stew material.