District 9 has been picking up pretty good reviews on the whole, but another whole layer has been missed by many reviewers who don’t understand the South African setting. I lived in South Africa until 2002, and have been a long-time follower of the local SF culture. I’ve been a member of the national SF club, SFSA, since the 1970s, and the fact that there is this sort of creative talent in South Africa is not so much a surprise as the fact that it’s resulted in a major movie with a big worldwide launch – without turning it into an American-centric story, where the kid saves the day (actually, there is a minor element of the kid saves the day, but it’s not as unbelievable as in the average movie where a human kid does this).
The movie starts with a mystery: it has no hint as to why the aliens arrived. All we know is that they have lost their ability to control most of their vastly superior technology (not quite all: a few of their weapons work but only in contact with alien DNA, and their space craft is able to remain in a fixed position for decades). There appears to be some linkage between their genetic make up and their ability to control their technology, but much of this is left a mystery.
By a combination of hand cam shots meant to represent an official record of events, news-like footage, surveillance camera-style footage and the occasional realistic scene, it’s hard not to become involved and have a real sense of an actual story unfolding, even though the earlier events are in the past.
Imagine humans in a like situation. A million humans in a colony ship arrive at a distant planet, and our technology breaks down. Aliens who are obviously less advanced than us “rescue” us from our disabled ship and treat us like dirt. How would we cope? How many of us would have the advanced scientific knowledge to fix our broken space craft? Think Star Trek episodes and beaming down to the nearest planet to find some broken part or find a missing chemical. Totally unlikely. What we saw in District 9 is a much more likely scenario for a space ship breaking down far from home. Possibly this is why (though the last Star Trek movie was passably good, give or take the odd plot hole you could drive the Enterprise through) my favourite SF movies tend to be spoofs like Mars Attacks! and Galaxy Quest.
The real genius of this movie is in its use of role reversals. The aliens have arrived in a disabled space craft under squalid conditions (Australians, think refugees in leaky boats). They are treated with utmost condescension, and things that are obviously not for their own good are done to “improve” conditions for them. Suddenly you are put in a position of seeing this all from their point of view. You need a good understanding of South Africa to get all the references but for a foreign audience it adds to the “alienness” feeling of the movie. To add to the subtle feeling that you are looking at things backwards, one of the aliens is called “Christopher Johnson” (typical of the way colonial overlords renamed the natives when they couldn’t pronounce the native-language name), a name less “alien” to a non-South African audience than Van der Merwe.
Let’s examine some of those South African references. First, the very title harks back to the dark years of apartheid. District 6 in Cape Town (in a different part of South Africa) was a ghetto for Coloured (mixed-race) South Africans, which, despite poverty, had a strong sense of community. The government decided to clear out the residents because having Coloured people too near the city centre was inconvenient. Clearing out District 6 was a big running sore in apartheid history; forced removals were bitterly opposed, and the cleared land was left largely undeveloped until the fall of apartheid, when rights of former residents to return were recognized. Forced removals, in general, were a key feature of the apartheid system. One study of the effects was called the Surplus People Project; a movie depicting the effects was titled Last Grave at Dimbaza.
Second, the attitude towards the aliens is consistent with current attitudes in South Africa to “illegal aliens” of the human kind. There have been riots over the presence of such foreigners from poorer parts of Africa, and the attitudes expressed in the movie are absolutely typical, and a sad rejection of the apartheid past, when the rest of Africa rallied to support of the anti-apartheid cause, and accepted South African refugees with open arms. The aliens are accused of all kinds of things like causing crime, when the only evidence we see of criminality is from Nigerian gangs and the MNU company that is desperately trying to make money out of the aliens by any means, not matter how unscrupulous. MNU is a bit of a composite, not reflective of a real company. Americans may relate it to private contractors in Iraq. South Africa does indeed have a large armaments company, government-owned Denel (a relic of the apartheid era) but it does not do the sort of private security work depicted in the movie – there are other South Africa companies that do that sort of thing – nor is it as big in the world market as the fictitious MNU.
Third, and this is where the subtleties really accumulate, the attitude of protagonist Wikus van der Merwe to the aliens is exactly the way apartheid officials treated Black South Africans in the darkest apartheid years. Telling one of the aliens not to use so many clicks is a direct reference to South African languages, several of which include click sounds (the San languages are almost entirely composed of clicks, and Xhosa and Zulu have a few click sounds). That Van der Merwe, who obviously gets on well with his Black colleagues, can get away with this treatment of the aliens with no sense of irony or objection from the Black members of the team shows how little the South Africans represented in the story learnt from their apartheid experience.
More sensitive viewers may dislike the violence (especially in the second half, which turns into frenetic action scenes) but it is integral to the story and not gratuitous. The dialogue also includes some of the more serious Zulu cursing I’ve heard in decades but that would go over the heads of most foreign audiences.
No doubt the computer game heritage of the movie gives it some of its mass market appeal, but this is a real classic, as much a game-changer (in the other sense) as the Matrix movies, and a whole lot more intelligent. That there are almost no American (or even UK English) accents in the dialogue, some African language dialogue without subtitling and that the protagonist has a name almost unpronounceable to non-South Africa English speakers are brave moves but add to the movie’s appeal as something different from the usual Hollywood dross.
A little help for the foreigners: “Wikus” is pronounced something like Vee-cuss. “Van der Merwe” is pronounced something like Fun-deh-meh-vuh.
Sequel? Very likely. With the box office this one is generating, the unexplained details and the potential for follow-up developments left open at the end, a sequel is almost 100% on. I hope it’s as good as the first. At last, after a long drought, an SF movie that’s better than a parody. It’s been a long wait.