Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9 and the Noble Savage or "Why I Need To Spoil The Film Everyone Loves"

*****Spoiler Alert***** (In more ways than one)

I saw District 9 on opening night. My two concluding statements: "I loved every minute of watching that movie" and "I officially despise this movie"

It took me about an hour to reach the second statement, but there were hints throughout. Though I was completely riveted the whole time, like, jaw-open-eyes agog-throughout kind of riveted, I was continually bumping up against issues of logic, suspension of disbelief as well as character/narrative issues. But I'll leave those for the film critics to parse.

What puts this film officially on my shit-list is that in its attempted exploration of issues about immigration, race, prejudice, oppression, power and privilege, it actually propagates the mentality its presumably challenging. Here’s some of what I saw.

We are faced early on with the blatant human disregard for the alien species, as we see them nicknamed, murdered, abused and displaced with flippancy by the South African community. This exposition part of the film is really quite stunning and disturbing- you see an unassuming paper-pusher of a man explain how the alien eggs (unborn children) burst like popcorn when they're burned, while he oversees the systematic destruction of a whole pod of eggs. He's giddy and childlike--his innocence to the horror he's committing is freakish, and the audience, understandably and appropriately, gasps. The parallels throughout the film regarding the aliens as refugees, slaves or genocide victims are hardly subtle. It's clear that as we watch, we are supposed to shrink in horror at the similarity between the atrocities being causally committed by humans against aliens and our own cultural histories and present tenses regarding outsiders, minorities and the oppressed.

But this is where the film gets dangerous or at least grotesque. The film never leaves the perspective of the oppressors. The aliens (clear stand-ins for oppressed cultures) are helpless, stupid, volatile and violent. In one of the first noticeable non-"archival" scenes in the film, we see two aliens scrounging for scraps. They are noticeably wearing clothes, (cue the viewer: all aliens look alike but this one's wearing clothing so you can recognize it- maybe this will be a main character). Next, a toddler sized alien appears, talking to the boldly dressed alien, (cue the viewer: this alien has a kid, so this is definitely the main character, and you are now going to sympathize with it because there's a little cute alien to go with it). I nearly "ugghhed" out loud when these aliens shortly reappeared in a new scene, confirming the stereotyped character coding.

Next, when the main alien character interacts with the humans, they all notice that he is smarter than the rest of the aliens. As I watched, I waited for when the film would explain that the aliens are intelligent, and it’s just prejudice framing them all as stupid animals. But this never happens. Not one reasonably sentient alien besides "Christopher" and his son ever appears. The film never alludes to why Christopher seems able to survive without killing others over cat-food (another offensive trend in the alien lifestyle- they inexplicably love cat-food (ahem-Crack) and will do anything for it). Christopher is merely the ONE alien who isn't a dumb-insect-riot monger-addict.

In hearing the alien's name, the audience chuckles or is confused by his Anglo name, Christopher Johnson. At first I thought this was appropriately upsetting, and a set-up for when we'd get to learn his true name. But we never learn his non-"Ellis Island" or oppressor-given name. It's never addressed. And maybe that would be an okay element of ambiguity/mystery in the narrative, were it not for all the other disappointments as far as the cultural parallels.

The worst element of all, however, is the fact that after being continually manipulated, abandoned, beaten, threatened and taken advantage of by the main human character, (including his son being essentially kidnapped), "Christopher" then turns to Wikus and refuses to leave him behind. While this reflects well on Christopher's integrity and shows-up Wikus's cowardice, what I really think it reflects is an oppressor's version of the scenario. It's basically a story of a beaten and abused slave turning to save their master from drowning. Of course that's the white people version of the story. To frame the story in such a way that the abused alien risks twenty times more on behalf of the white man than the white man risks for him, creates a self-aggrandized catharsis for us, the powerful and privileged, to get to watch a story of wounded, marginalized people wholeheartedly forgiving our oppression. It is the noble savage thanking us in a pure British accent, for domesticating him and teaching him how to behave. It's horrific.

Further, while the aliens are clearly the more sympathetic characters, the film ends focused on the pathos and tragedy of the human character having been transformed into an alien. We are left with the image of lonely Wikus the now-alien, rather than the victory of Christopher, escaping to free his people. We don’t even get to know if Christopher was successful in his mission. The end made me so furious, that it erased my entire experience of enjoying the previous two hours. Shouldn’t Wikus’s new identity as an alien/outsider, be his literal and figurative character transformation? The story was so clearly headed in this direction. But we never see Wikus repentant of how he’d treated the aliens (of which he is now one). We only see his survival instinct and his guilt. What’s the point of changing the oppressor into the shape of the oppressed if he is never made aware of his violence? Though I’m all for subverting viewer’s expectations in narrative tropes, this is one case where I felt gross when left with the aborted trajectory. If feeling gross at our identification with Wikus was the goal, then the film shouldn’t end with him making a tin flower for his wife. Really.

For a film about exposing the abuses we commit to “the other”, this film only furthers a colonialist view of other cultures, wherein those we conquer and subdue, probably deserve it because they are so uncivilized and, literally in this film’s case, inhuman. I’m pretty shocked and appalled that a film so close to being amazing, got it so, so, so wrong.


Scott said...

For what it's worth, I came away with a vastly different reading of much of what you noticed in the film. =)

Kj said...

cool- I want to hear

J.Paul said...

KJ - just saw this last night with Ryan Marsh and another friend Luke. Very well written review here. I'm intensely ambivalent with you. To add to the insult, we are told that the illegal/abusive eviction and relocation to District 10 is "successful"...the aliens are now freshly contained and growing in population. Perhaps the sequel will redeem the narrative? Of course, the newly transformed Wikus will save the day by sacrificing his own life and we'll nod our heads and call him messianic.

josué.blanco said...

Great great great. This movie was confusing for me too, but the ability of the alien to sympathize where there was no compassion on his behalf reminds me of the good Samaritan parable. Wonder how you would read these two together.

J.Paul said...

I can't shake the idea that Wikus is the Afrikan version of Michael Scott...

J.Paul said...

...and I must add this: ABSOLUTELY no disrespect to Sharlto Copley. Fantastic first movie role...especially considering that he improvised most of the dialogue in the documentary-style scenes. Watch 'yer back Carell.

Kj said...

Nice J.Paul- I did kind of enjoy his transformation from awkward nerd to action hero