District 9 is not a pretty movie. It doesn’t look pretty. Its message isn’t pretty. It hurts the eyes to watch. In fact, District 9 is an outright ugly movie, but it is an ugly that is perfectly crafted and takes ugly to the heights of a new aesthetic. The screen is full of unflinchingly realistic ugly slums, banal ugly interiors of institutionalized spaces, and ugly people whose entire lives and bodies have been corrupted by the ugly greedy powers that dominate everything in the landscape.
Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, the movie centers on a camp of stranded space aliens who have been contained within a hideous filthy militarized slum and are in the process of being relocated to a concentration camp in the desert. Through its narrative, District 9 overtly exposes South Africa’s egregious practice of apartheid, a system of segregation that was the government-sanctioned practice of legal racism. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out this connection and to understand the film in relation to its historic and geographic specificity. Certainly, apartheid and all systems of racism need to be addressed. But what makes this movie most interesting is how it uses the real life practice of apartheid as a jumping point to expose a whole global system of exploitation, discrimination, and economic cannibalism. District 9 doesn’t take on these big issues with bombastic Hollywood gloss and spectacle, but rather through a beautifully ugly hybrid of film genres – sci-fi, body horror, toxic accident, war and action films – to show how in a world where the toxins of global capital are so fluid, everything is corrupt, nothing is in its natural state, and toxic hybrids have become the new norm.
Though District 9 is indeed a mix-up of a number of film genres, it is first and foremost science fiction. But this is not the über-slick sci-fi of Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg that has dominated the global marketplace for the past couple of decades. District 9 isn’t the kind of high gloss spectacle that subordinates any meaningful socio-political content in a tale to the quest for maximum proft.. District 9’s ugly exterior and its realistic settings work to reclaim the ideological backbone of the best sci-fi by de-glossing the sci-fi production and bringing it down to the land of the real. Long ago and far away, sci-fi was a genre that was used to expose and critique savage socio-political systems. Sci-fi in the tradition of Philip K. Dick served a political function. Often infused with a good dose of Marxism, sci-fi dissected and exposed collusions between industry and government to achieve global economic domination at the expense of the working people, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized. In fact, the sci-fi of the past often exposed a system not unlike the Global Capital Machine of the present, the one that dominates the globe and cannibalizes the vast majority of the world’s population. As the Hollywood Machine became more sanitized and safe (beginning with the Reagan era and moving forward), sci-fi became an industry staple to generate enormous profits instead of civil unrest. Any subversive political content became glossed over by mega FX and superstar heroes that raked in enormous profits at the box office. Sure, sci-fi movies have tangentially addressed political and economic corruption, but rarely with a hell of a lot of conviction or bearing on the real world.
There is no denying the real world in District 9. The first part of the movie delivers a disorienting frenetic mockumentary in which we are thrust into the reality of the slums of Johannesburg and the segregated alienated encampment via mock documentary footage. The humorous B-movie sensibility of the film within a film cuts against the brutal reality of the real Johannesburg slums we see on the screen. It is reeling, disorienting, and confusing. We’re not sure whether we should laugh or run. Through interviews with the film’s protagonist Wikus and a number of talking heads and through a head-spinning whirl of CNN-type news coverage, we witness and partake in the media construction of institutionalized discrimination. The aliens are portrayed as a vile threat (not unlike inner-city gangs and “illegal” immigrants) while the police, military, and corporate powers of MNU work to protect the public from this threat. As the news cameras follow the team that “rescues” the aliens from their stranded ship and as we discover the malnourished hovering masses of aliens crammed into the hull of the ship, we may as well be watching news coverage of a truckload of Mexicans discovered on the Arizona border or a tanker ship full of Chinese workers left to die on the shores of New Jersey. While their bodies may look like beetles from space, these aliens’ story certainly is familiar. Not only are they the embodiment of the segregated black Africans in South Africa, but they are the embodiment of every illegally smuggled alien who has landed to a vicious unwelcome in a foreign land only to have their labor exploited. They are the bodies of every human population that has been marginalized, abused, and exterminated. The film makes clear that the aliens are the “worker bees” whose sole function is to perform labor, not unlike the masses of illegal aliens who work in the sweat factories, slaughterhouses, and produce fields across the globe. Certainly global capital could not exist in its current form without these “aliens,” yet the powers that be deem it best to keep them segregated and hidden. District 9 brings them and the systems that control and contain them to the surface in this first “mockumentary” sequence.
Wikus is no Bruce Willis, Will Smith or Tom Cruise. Wikus is a pathetic drone who has been conditioned by the system to accept racism and brutality as everyday facts of life. Wikus sports his ugly tan sweater vest like a badge of homogenization, a symbol of his complete lack of color and integration in the bureaucratic system. When Wikus is hired to lead the eviction of the aliens from District 9 and relocate them to the concentration camp District 10, he handles the job as if he is shuffling paper. To him, evicting an alien from his home is no different than moving a box of files from one room to the next. Alien and human bodies are shot, ripped apart, and thrown into the air, yet Wikus walks right through this war zone slum as if it is the most ordinary thing in a world. In one particularly disgusting scene, Wikus discovers a shack of alien eggs and orders them fire-bombed. As the police blast the eggs with flame guns, the eggs make a hissing popping sound, and Wikus laughs and says, “Sounds like popcorn!” But it’s not popcorn. It’s babies in the making. In a way, Wikus is the alien, a dehumanized creature who is immune to the vile circumstances that surround him, the savage discrimination, and the police brutality. He stopped being human long ago. It is not until he is contaminated with alien fluid that Wikus actually starts to become human. In a classic sci-fi narrative, he has to become “the other” to become human.
Wikus’s transformation from human to alien (which ultimately is a transformation from alien to human) provides the real narrative juice of the film, and his body’s transformation mirrors the film’s own hybrid state as it shifts from genre to genre. Once Wikus is contaminated and his body begins its physical metamorphosis into an alien, the movie switches gears into body horror. Wikus sprouts an alien hand, and the next segment of the film focuses on his transformation to “otherness” through his body’s transformation. The images of Wikus’s body are truly horrific. He shits himself, pukes black ooze, peels off his fingernails, and pulls out his teeth. His body is a sweating, oozing, filthy mess just like the environment it occupies. The corruption of his interior body becomes externalized. No longer protected by the institutionalized cover of his tan sweater vest, Wikus is now wrapped in bloody bandages, his chest and arms open with oozing pustules. In classic Cronenberg-style, Wikus becomes a horror of merged forms – human and alien, man and weapon, a walking piece of biotechnology. He is a hybrid mess of a being living in a hybrid mess of a world. More than anything, Wilkus becomes “wanted” because he is a valuable asset to the corporate interests of MNU. In the first part of the film, Wikus is an unconscious weapon who blindly serves the needs of the Corporation. In the second part of the film, he is a conscious weapon, and it is made overtly clear that his body is a resource to be “harvested” for the “millions of dollars of biotechnology” contained within it. The movie pulls no punches in showing how Wikus, the “prawns”, and all the worker bees are disposable to the system whose sole mission is economic dominance via advanced weaponry.
Speaking of the system, MNU is also a hybrid, and its hybrid nature ultimately is the source of the bastardization of all living forms in the film. MNU is a corporate-military hybrid. (Can you say Halliburton?) MNU is Corporation As Government , and Corporation As Military. In District 9, the corporation, the military and the government all seem to embody the same force. MNU is the hybrid body that controls and dominates everything, and in so doing corrupts every inch of the environment. The corporation is called Multi-National United, but it might as well be called Global-Capital United (GCU) because the end results are the same. It is a system that brutalizes, cannibalizes and stratifies the masses to serve its own economic ends. Everything is infected under this force. MNU/GCU creates a system where everyone is oppressed except for the few who are in control at the top. There is no space for cultural traditions or integrity of identity because everyone is shoved into the margins and set against each other like so many dogs in a yard. Aliens eat cat food. Nigerians eat aliens. The oppressed become the oppressor, and the whole system is corrupt. The crippled Nigerian leader who wants to eat Wikus’s arm is the embodiment of the literal crippling effect of racism and the desire for economic power that promotes its practice. The world of this film is a very ugly place.
Wikus discovers that MNU is literally violating the aliens by performing cruel and horrific medical experiments on their bodies in an attempt to exploit them for the use of alien weapon technolog. He also discovers that he is as disposable as the aliens are as MNU attempts to harvest his body for its biotechnological resources. It is through Wikus’s realization that he and the aliens occupy the same place (and same body) that Wikus actually becomes “human.” It is at this point that he actually calls a “prawn” by his name, Christopher Johnson, and with that act forfeits his racist conditioning. Wikus and Christopher, two marginalized workers, join forces to recapture the alien fluid. At this point, the movie becomes an inter-racial buddy film referencing such mega-Hollywood fodder as the Lethal Weapon franchise, except these Lethal Weapons (Wikus and Christopher), even in their alien form, are surprisingly more believable and real than superstars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
As Christopher and Wikus buddy-up, the movie shifts gears again, becoming a pursuit and action movie in a war zone. We may as well be watching news footage from the front line as they fight their way through the Abu-Ghraib-esque MNU laboratory with the tortured forms of aliens filling up every institutional corner like so much dead cattle. As Wikus and Christopher battle their way through the slums littered with dirt, aluminum siding, torn linoleum, rusty box springs, gutted computers, and garbage and squalor of all variety, they may as well be crawling through the bombed streets of Iraq. The slums in this movie are very real, but they are also shown as a war zone because there is a war out there. A global war. It’s the same war that segregates blacks in South Africa, forces thousands of Chinese immigrants into the bowels of tanker ships, and leaves Mexicans dead across the deserts of the U.S. borders. It’s the war that shoves inner-city blacks into housing projects and builds tent cities for Mexicans to work the fields in the Central Valley. It is the war that has families of 15 living in one room apartments so they can sew designer clothes in sweat factories or slaughter cattle for $2 an hour for the meat industry. And that is a war that few movies ever really show us in all its ugliness the way that District 9 does.
In one of the final scenes, Wikus actually dons the gear of a Michael Bay film as he climbs into a giant Transformer-As-Weapon suit and uses it to save his buddy Christopher. But District 9 doesn’t allow the spectacle to supersede the reality of the world the movie is depicting. The kind of transformation this movie is depicting isn’t heroic. It is about the transformation of a world that real suffering human bodies occupy. As Wikus stomps through the slums in his Transformer suit, he is shot and dismantled by the racist military. Pieces of the apparatus fall off of him, and the Transformer becomes all too bodily again. It leaks blood and vomits fluid. It tumbles, pukes, bleeds and finally disposes of Wikus on the ground of the slums. There is no Spielberg grand finale and no Michael Bay deus ex machina. There is only the body of a beaten man as Wikus’s filthy, corrupt body lies in the dirt of the ghetto. Barbed wire, gutted shacks, graffiti and garbage surround him as he crawls through the dead grass. There is no happy ending. And in fact there is no ending because this is a story that is still happening right now. It hasn’t stopped yet.
How do the spacecraft and the “prawns” fit into all of this? The movie opens with the looming spectre of a stranded alien spaceship that has “broken down” over Johannesburg and now hovers over the landscape like some kind of industrial ghost. Though supposedly from “outer space,” this is no glossy high-tech gleaming spaceship. It is more like some kind of archaic remnant of the industrial age. It looks more like an abandoned factory than something that could travel through space. Its metal exterior looks rusted and dirty; its technology seems based more on welded steel than computer chips. The aliens who occupied the ship are described as “worker bees” who were dislocated when their ship broke down. The aliens are forced into a wretched encampment and left to fend for themselves in the rubble. The locals refer to the aliens as “prawns” because they see them as “bottom feeders.” In the system of post-industrial global capital where organized labor (and a livable wage to go with it) has been forced into extinction, the “worker bees” have been marginalized and pushed into poverty. The empty body of organized labor, the ghost of a ship whose crew has been displaced, hovers like a spectre looming over the cannibalistic world of global capital. The worker bees have been driven to become bottom feeders because they live in a system where they have been forced to the bottom. So we laugh in disgust and horror as the “prawns” stand in line to buy a can of cat food to eat or fight over the scraps of meat tossed in the garbage heap, but that is the world they have been pushed to.
One of the most powerful images of the film (besides the spectre of the mothership itself) is the image of the rescue ship rising from below the surface of the slums. The ship itself looks to be a part of the slum with aluminum siding, linoleum, and other refuse scraps molded to its body. It’s literally an uprising from the slums. As it connects to the mothership, the pieces of the slums it carries with it fall off its body, freeing it from the physical entrapment of that place. As the mothership slowly comes to life and starts moving, the hum of its engines rumble ominously through the entire environment. Could this be the rumble of revolution? Is the factory coming back to life?
By the time the movie gets to the final scene of Wikus, now entirely changed into an alien and sitting in a garbage heap making a flower out of old tin, we have been put through the ringer. We’ve been cycled in and out of genres, been visually assaulted by no end of atrocities and filth, and been bombarded with the ugliest side of mankind. There is no happy ending in a gleaming New York City apartment, no family reconciliation, no rainbow and a pot of gold. After seeing this rollercoaster of ugliness, I couldn’t help but wonder how it was going to be received by the megaplex audience since the intent of the movie seems to be focused on taking sci-fi back from the megaplex. How will the mass audience respond when so much of District 9 is about undoing the Hollywood model and putting the human body and dirt and ugliness of the real back into the glossed over spectacle of mainstream sci-fi? So much of Hollywood sci-fi is about taking the “otherness” out of the “other” and about hiding reality while pretending to address it. There is no hiding the reality in District 9. That is probably also why it’s causing such a stir. The politically correct Left is calling it racist. The conservative Right is calling it liberal fodder. I say District 9 is simply calling it how it is. We have been conditioned by both sides not to look too closely at reality. Things are much more manageable when they are wearing the face of Tom Cruise or the computer-generated heroics of Michael Bay or when they are defined by tidy glossy labels that keep things safely sequestered in their designated place (on the Left or on the Right). The labels in District 9 are neither glossy nor tidy. They’re a bit of a mess, but that’s because the world we live in is a mess. District 9, and the reality that it portrays through its B-film sci-fi horror aesthetic, is not a pretty sight. However, no film in recent times has made ugly look so good. This is an ugly that is a marvel to see.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.