Op-Ed: Is District 9 great science fiction or social commentary? Special

Posted Aug 23, 2009 by Jay David Murphy
District 9 is a rich piece of cinematography that pushes the envelope social political commentary draped in the science fiction genre.
District 9 movie poster
District 9 movie poster.
Jay David Murphy
Having been offered to go with a an old friend to the movies on a Saturday night this Digital Journalist took them up on the offer to go check out District 9.
Much to this Digital Journalist's surprise, it was an enthralling unfamiliar film with a fantastic story that is steeped in social political commentary using science fiction as a vehicle to express powerful images, thoughts, and commentaries on today’s society.
It takes place in present day Johannesburg, and is produced by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings trilogy fame, who calls home New Zealand. He also has single handily created a small film empire in that mostly rural country, famous for its sheep and environmental tourism.
Checking out the web site D-9, you’re also treated to the same sci-fi social political commentary.
Multi National Union is clearly a statement on the United Nations. This is the organization that takes on the responsibility of the aliens who appear 28 years ago from now.
The monolithic space craft, like an inverted city, another one of the clever visual metaphors used in the film, suddenly appears above Johannesburg South Africa setting the climate for the rest of the film.
If you think this film is a commentary on racial relations and disproportions in that country you would be dead on target.
One of the things that sci-fiction allows film makers who want to put forth political, philosophical, or sociological views, statements, and analogies is to express themselves in the cloak of fictional events, to hold a mirror up to society for introspection.
District 9 actually bombards the audience with all of the above and is relentless in this task it has assigned itself. To try and put your finger on one thing, without an intimate knowledge of atmosphere in modern South Africa, is almost impossible with so many comments, images, and sounds that comprise District 9’s cinematography.
Directed by Neil Blomkamp this bloody, visually intriguing, and in your face social political commentary sci-fi film that is expertly mashed together to create a documentary feel, by using documentary devices, and seamlessly jumping back and forth between the world of the story and news casts as they tell the story of the lead character Wilkus Van De Merwe who is played brilliantly by Sharito Copely.
His character arch in the beginning feels like Mr. Bean has been put in charge of this massive task of relocating the aliens after 20 plus years in a Ghetto to another internment camp. Shades that are drawn with hard lines that don’t just hint the holocaust, they scream it out at the audience. Without a firm footed perspective in modern South Africa it would be remiss to say that this is a direct comment, but by the end of the film a pretty strong assumption to that perspective could easily be made.
Wilkus is the kind of government official that is so above it all, that in the beginning he is completely out of touch with the horror of it all and is willing participant, which is so brutally illustatrated when he orders his MNU forces to torch an alien nursery while providing commentary for the audience like, “sounds like popcorn popping.”
Later in the film, when the action intensifies and he has befriended the alien pilot and its offspring, this would flip as he helps them escape back to the mother ship. This contrast was nicely set up and carried out with a sledge hammer of images and dialogue for the audience, so as not to have to guess about it, but to cry out, the inhumanity of it.
Taking cues from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the film is about the transformation ideology and philosophy of man, through the transformation of the lead character, Wilkus, who by the last scene of the film, because of splashing himself in the “fluid” while searching for weapons, becomes an alien himself. The “fluid” is created by the alien pilot to use in energizing his small ship so it can take off from its hiding place under ground to rejoin the mother ship hovering above Johannesburg.
There are so many metaphors at work in this film at the same time it is like a 12-story layer cake that Shakespeare would be proud of. Just keeping up with the metaphors is a task that will take a dozen viewings just to unravel all of them if it is actually possible.
The political commentary could just as easily translate into a vision of what could happen in the US with its Illegal alien problem, to draw direct connection to the reader in the US of this article.
This really is sci-fi at its best.
But it might be, and assuredly is way over the head of the average viewer who go for the spaceships, lasers, aliens, and bloody battles. They may not get, understand, or even care to wonder about the films multiple messages, but they will be affected by them because of the in your face style that Director Blomkemp as chosen to create on the big screen.
The whole film, if you need to put just one label on it, is a man's in humanity to man commentary. But is so much more than just that, that it would be unfair to the incredible film making spectacle that is District 9 to do so.
After, reading through a few lame reviews and commentaries about the film from people who try to summarize everything in fewer than 400 words was disappointing and frankly insulting to a project like this.
Those who look to capture its essence in such a manner, just to put words up on the Internet, for SEO purposes, should be forced marched across the Mohave desert in July just to teach them a lesson in what it really takes to make a film like this. The time, the planning, the filming, the editing, and the execution of this project is nothing short of miraculous.
But here is were the film slips up, it is so rich with imagery, metaphors, and social political commentary it leaves the average viewer who goes to the movies to be entertained, blind sided and left in a state of dizziness.
The friend who went with this journalist is in the medical profession and highly intelligent and had only one comment, “I thought it was stupid.” In fact he whispered above the laser fire in one scene that he wanted to leave.
For a film buff, literature nut, and intense societal observation junkie, such as this journalist, it was a cornucopia, stuffed full of cool stuff to ponder and to flash back on to, to sift through for brain food for mental fodder at a later time.
For the average movie goers, at least in the US it has enough action and sci-fi gadgets, gizmos and aliens to satisfy the escapism that movies are why they go, but unfortunately is way to busy, forcing social political commentary down the audiences throat. Unfortunately, District 9 won't have the legs for a long run in theaters and is destined to become a DVD way to soon.
It really is to bad too. This will become a cult classic in much the same way Clock Work Orange did, which had some of the same problems with it that this one does. It is just a little to smart for its own good.
But this journalist, part time movie reviewer, does highly recommend it, just hold on tight and give it chance. This is a film rich in metaphors, commentary, and sci-fi fun!
One final note, check out the D-9 web site, it pushes the envelope of what is the film and what is our reality. And the commentary continues beyond the film in the form of this marketing web site.