To be able to talk about District 9 properly, one must spoil some stuff. However, the basic premise of the film is enough to make you want to see it, so don’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it! The premise, if you want to be sure it’s enough to kindle desire, is that 1.8 million aliens were stranded in their ship above Johannesburg 20 years ago. Humanitarian aid came and they shuttled the aliens to the surface to what is called “District 9”. District 9 is a slum and much crime abounds; also, the humans want to learn how to use non-human weaponry. The film begins with employees of Multinational United setting out to evict the non-humans and relocate them 200 km away.
It is a film about otherness/the other.
What made the original The Day the Earth Stood Still so effective and so great was the timelessness of its theme. And the theme of that film was not “Nuclear Weapons Are Bad,” despite Klaatu’s little speech at the end. Thus, updating the message of the alien to “Destroying the Environment Is Bad” didn’t cut it. The theme was how we treat the other, how do we treat someone who is completely foreign to us, someone who is as different as can be. Just because he can get out of locked rooms doesn’t necessarily mean he’s dangerous. Is it necessary to hunt him down and shoot him full of holes simply because he is an unknown?
District 9 deals with the same theme but with a newer treatment, a treatment set in a country that knows all about dealing with the other, with a director who knows as well. But the other in District 9 is not black, coloured, or white. The other is “the Prawn.” The other is a large population of crustacean-like aliens who enjoy catfood. These aliens have powerful technology, and humans want to learn how to use non-human weapons technology.
Of course, non-humans aren’t humans. Humans generally don’t want them in their neighbourhood, riding their buses, eating their food. And they don’t really want them in the slum they built for them in District 9, so they’d rather relocate them to what is essentially a concentration camp full of tents smaller than their shacks in District 9.
Yet, although they speak in clicks, although they enjoy catfood, although they have six limbs, although they are wholly and completely other, humans have their uses for non-humans. These uses mostly surround non-human weaponry. You see, their advanced technology is bio-engineered so only someone with “Prawn” DNA can operate it. Their powerful weapons are useless to humanity.
This, then, leads to their uses. For a Nigerian ganglord who has hordes of Prawn weapons, eating raw Prawn-flesh will give him the power to operate them. For MNU, experimentation and slaughter will possibly unlock the key to making humans capable of utilising non-human weaponry. So they set up a lab where they can experiment and kill these aliens.
After all, they aren’t human.
They are other.
All of this would have been enough to make a piece about the other our treatment of the other. But the filmmakers took an extra step, partly to give it a real plot, partly to increase the potency and poignancy of how we treat those are wholly other to us.
Leading the eviction team is a man named Wikus (he’s Afrikaans, so that’s “Vikus”). While snooping around in the shack of an evicted non-human, he opens up a cannister of alien technology. We had just learned that some aliens had spent 20 years gathering enough fluid from bits of their technology to make the cannister. The fluid sprays on Wikus’ face and left arm.
Wikus starts bleeding black blood, loses the use of his left arm, vomits, and starts pulling fingernails out of his right hand. Why? Because he’s turning into a non-human.
His left arm becomes totally non-human, and throughout the film we see his skin starting to tear off in places, exposing some of his black blood and the exoskeleton beneath. MNU wants to cut him open whilst alive and harvest his organs because even his human right arm can fire the weapons. His DNA, before going totally non-human, would be the key to unlocking the power of non-human weaponry.
He escapes and makes use of various non-human weapons of varying abilities and potencies.
And this is how he spends the rest of the movie — essentially on the run, with one non-human arm. He is totally other. MNU wants him for his organs and DNA. They spread lies about him so no humans want to associate with him. The Nigerian ganglord wants to cut off the left arm and eat it raw to get the power Wikus has of firing the non-human weapons. The non-humans avoid him because he is not only human but was the person who, just the day before, was evicting them.
Wikus becomes the most lonely person on earth. He does not even share a species anymore. He is the ultimate other, unlike anyone or anything else.
This is the most powerful thing about the movie, watching him in his aloneness and otherness trying to survive.
And the second-most powerful thing is Christopher Johnson, the non-human who created the cylinder. All the humans want to either arrest or harvest or kill Wikus in some way or other. Christopher Johnson, the person who has been wronged by Wikus, proves to be the Samaritan willing to help the beaten and bludgeoned Jew.
It is a powerful testimony. In Exclusion & Embrace, Miroslav Volf talks about the concept of “non-innocence,” something some people in South Africa have voiced in the years since apartheid. None of us is innocent, not even the victims. Victims can be guilty of hating those who oppress us, of raising children with nothing but a strong hatred of the other, the other who raped and pissed on them, guilty of dehumanising those who dehumanise them.
Yet Christopher Johnson does not succumb to evil and hatred. When he encounters Wikus, the man who tried to evict him illegally, and sees Wikus’ plight, he informs him that he can help him if they go to the Mothership. When Wikus betrays him, Christopher Johnson will not turn his back on him.
And this is how we are to treat the other. Not exclusion, but embrace. Sure, it is a dangerous embrace. What if, like Commodus in Gladiator, he holds an unseen knife in his hand? What if that embrace is the embrace that will separate you from your people who are devoted to shunning the other? What if he’ll turn on you and steal your spaceship the moment you turn your back? These are the risks of embrace, but Christopher Johnson is willing to take them, willing not to shun Wikus’ in his moment of need.
District 9 is a movie about aliens — the ultimate others.
How do you treat the stranger in your midst?