Tuesday, December 29, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: District 9 (2009)

In 1915, Franz Kafka's now-famous novella, The Metamorphosis was first published. The narrative revolved around a character named Gregor Samsa -- an average man of little power or influence -- who felt beholden financially to his employer, a sales company called "The Firm."

Well, powerless Everyman, Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had inexplicably transformed into an "insekt." A very large insect...but with human emotions.

Over time, Gregor began to witness his humanity (his language; his appetites; his understanding...) slip away as the insect within took over. Like famous Brundlefly, Kafka's hapless, helpless hero was an insect who dreamed he was a man.

In Kafka's literary work, Gregor Samsa was dismissed and betrayed by his family and completed his transformation to bug (or "vermin") isolated...alone in his room; a dark secret. Finally, his family did away with Gregor all together so it could move on and flourish financially. Economic welfare was prized over loyalty to family. Over human decency itself.

In short, The Metamorphosis was a parable about the human condition as Kafka viewed that condition in the early 20th century; and -- in particular -- one man's place in his nation's economy and power hierarchy.

From stories such as The Metamorphosis (and also from the novel, The Trial), scholars, literary critics and historians have derived the eponym "Kafka-esque."

Today, we all have a pretty good understanding of what that term implies (especially if you've ever stood in line at the DMV...). To be legitimately "Kafka-esque," a work of art must concern the impossibility of individual liberty or freedom inside a bloated State of enormous reach, power and influence. Kafka-esque stories are often surreal and feature bitter ironies (not to mention circular logic, especially on the part of the State's "representatives.") Finally we equate with the term Kafka-esque an impenetrable and inhuman maze of bureaucracy, one from which there is no escape or respite for the individual.

Simply stated, I have never witnessed a more imaginative, more stirring, or more dramatic Kafka-esque vision (and quasi-re-telling of Metamorphosis) than Neil Blomkamp's genre film and parable for our 21st century days, District 9 (2009).

The film concerns the arrival of a massive alien spaceship in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the manner in which the extra terrestrial passengers on that ship -- giant insects called "Prawns" --are quickly marginalized and segregated from the human population in a slum, dubbed District 9.

That district, that ghetto, is to be torn down by global corporation MNU (think Blackwater or Haliburton...) and be replaced by Sanctuary City, a new ghetto that one MNU official readily admits is the equivalent of "a concentration camp."

District 9's central character, a human named Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is a true descendent of Kafka's Gregor Samsa. He is a simple, ultimately powerless man who works for the impersonal -- nay imperial -- corporation, MNU. Van der Merwe has been promoted beyond his competency level (because of cronyism/nepotism) and, on one outing to District 9 to obtain waivers for the Prawn relocation, is exposed to a strange alien "fluid" that begins to transform Wikus --just like his Kafkaesque predecessor -- into a giant insect.

The State, here represented by MNU, comes to consider van de Merwe "The most valuable business artifact on Earth" because his new alien DNA allows him to operate powerful Prawn weaponry. MNU -- commanded by van der Merwe's father-in-law -- wants to take ownership of Wikus and surgically exploit him for his Prawn/human DNA. MNU even concocts the false charge that van der Mewe is a dangerous (and infectious...) sexual deviant...and sells that lie to the gullible mass media to assure that none of van der Merwe's fellow men in Johannesburg will come to the fugitive's rescue.

So, a once "average" man has become prized possession of the State and a scapegoat of the State simultaneously, and what he wants and desires for himself no longer matters. Instead, Wikus finds himself an outcast, one separated from his wife and cut adrift from his fellow humans in the slum of District 9. In the film's haunting final shot, we see the Kafka-esque "metamorphosis" completed, and Wikus is now an overgrown insect fashioning metal flowers out of trash...a haunting reminder of his love for his wife and of his lost humanity.

When I first heard about District 9 last summer, the film's premise sounded to me uncomfortably similar to a movie I reviewed on this blog recently, Alien Nation (1988). In both films, a large extraterrestrial population emigrates to Earth aboard a vast mother ship, is treated with ugly racial prejudice (and given a slang name, whether it be "Slag" or "Prawn.") And in both stories, the aliens are assimilated into indigenous cultures with "human" names, whether it be "Sam Francisco" or "Christopher Johnson." Lastly, both films involve a substance with the capability to mutate DNA: the dangerous drug of the Newcomers in Alien Nation and the Prawn fluid in District 9.

Yet about half-way through my viewing of District 9, I understood that Blomkamp's film actually has far more in common with another celebrated sci-fi movie of the 1980s: RoboCop (1987). You may recall that RoboCop was actually a blistering satire of the Reagan Era, not merely an action film. The Verhoeven film depicted a future United States in which Big Business called all the shots; in which the mass media was insipid to the point of lunacy, and in which every public institution -- even police departments -- had been "privatized" to be run as a business (for profit). RoboCop was a nightmare vision of Reagan's laissez-faire dogma run amuck, extrapolated into the near-future. Why, RoboCop even featured gas-guzzling, over-sized vehicles the likes of which we've all seen! They weren't called SUVs though; they were SUXs. But the point, oddly enough, was that a machine -- RoboCop himself -- was more human than the corporations and avaricious, backstabbing executives of his world.

What I mean to suggest here is that the makers of RoboCop in 1987 gazed at the world around them and made -- admittedly from a standard action formula -- a parable that critiqued the American culture on virtually every front imaginable. Far from being a slavish copy of Alien Nation, District 9 undertakes the same difficult task, only for us, here...now. For the first decade of the twenty-first century, just ending. Careful writers and critics have noted the many similarities between the film's District 9 slum and Capetown during the Apartheid era, but the film's critique goes much deeper, even, than that specific historical context. The critique is...global.

For instance, District 9 aggressively takes on corporate cronyism. As I noted above, Wikus is not really competent to be dealing with alien life forms; but rather was hired because of family ties, and does a "heck of a job," just like poor old Brownie did after Katrina in 2005.

Racism is also a major issue. The Prawns are essentially termed lazy by employees at MNU. We are actually told they possess "no initiative," a common (and racist) refrain against Africans and African-Americans. Accordingly, humans treat the aliens shabbily, allowing them to be exploited by Nigerian profiteers who sell food (cat food...) to them at exorbitant prices. Even Prawn children are deemed less worthy than human children, and there is a disturbing scene in the film during which Wikus and his MNU team thoughtlessly (and with great amusement...) knowingly abort several Prawn hatchlings. Because the Prawns aren't human in appearance (read: non-white;), it is easier to disregard and destroy them.

District 9 also takes on the corporate media and the abundantly false memes it often pushes at the expense of truth. Specifically, the JHB Network terms Wikus a sex criminal, and a firefight in District 9 miraculously becomes "a terrorist bombing!" In real life, we've had reports of death panels, FEMA camps, terrorist fist bumps, the War on Christmas, the trenchcoat mafia, "she said yes!"(Cassie Bernall) and other proven falsehoods propagated on 24-hour news channels without a lot by way of official retraction.
Why this week, Mary Matalin went on TV and said that George Bush inherited the 9/11 attacks from Bill Clinton, when in reality the attacks occured after Bush had been Commander-in-Chief for more than eight months. The media's mission in many such instances: to frighten us; to tell us who are "enemies" are so we can fear them. So we can destroy them (and then take their resources with impunity and not feel bad about it...)

We also get commentary in District 9 about the questionable policy of governments outsourcing military jobs to corporations and private security firms (again, think about unaccountable Blackwater and the company's history of abuse in the occupation of Iraq). Many Americans believe Blackwater was forced out of Iraq following a massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007. Guess what? Blackwater just changed names to Xe Services and is still operating there. In District 9, MNU is the iron-hand forcing segregation, relocation, genocide...and secret weapons research.

And of course, there is commentary on absurd bureaucracy in Blomkamp'sfilm as well: Wikus must acquire Prawn signatures before evicting the aliens from District 9, a ridiculous notion given that the Prawns are incredibly strong, nine-foot-tall insectoids. Basically, he's asking creatures from another planet permission to put them in concentration camps. It is patently absurd. And, in the tradition of Kafka, utterly surreal.

A blazing, incendiary film, District 9 takes a long hard look at the world we've built in the new millennium and concludes that it is, finally, in the truest sense...Kafkaesque. Wikus -- who was no more than an insect to MNU to begin with -- literally transforms into an insect. Our species, the film seems to acknowledge, has truly jumped the shark.

Accordingly, District 9 implicitly asks the question: how can we expect humans to be decent to aliens when humans are so rotten to each other? When they keep their neighbor's children starving? When they send businesses to foreign lands to exploit resources? When the truth is lost and partisanship and "spin" replaces it? When the bottom line is more important than morality? Make no mistake, District 9 concerns segregation and the circumstances in South Africa in the 1980s, but the film is also about much more than that: it is a universal critique of humanity on the precipice; of global humanity as it exists today.

By pointed contrast -- as we see -- the Prawns at least seem to believe in traditional "human" virtues such as family...and loyalty. Even patience, actually. Christopher Johnson loves his young son and has toiled for twenty years to escape the slum in District 9 by repairing a buried spaceship. When he learns that his people are being subjected to Nazi-like medical experiments by MNU, Christopher's first thought is to bring help; of saving his people. Wikus's first thought when transformed into an insect is for himself: for getting cured so he can resume his life. And when Wikus seems to finally develop loyalty for Christopher Johnson and his son, we must ask an important question: is it because his humanity has vanished? Is it because he has become more "Prawn" now -- and thus more noble -- than man?

In terms of visuals, District 9 is a highly dynamic film. The aliens aren't what I could "realistic," per se (kind of hoary in concept, actually...), but how they appear in the frame, in the compositions themselves, is incredibly realistic. The camera doesn't make a big deal of the Prawns; doesn't focus on them, or even center them.

Instead, the aliens appear in the background of shots; in a soup line behind the main character, for instance; almost as part of the landscape itself. The effect is stunning; our eyes take the creatures for completely "real." I haven't seen Avatar yet, but I can state with confidence that the visual integration of the Prawns into the real life (live action...) settings of District 9 is jaw-dropping.

I also enjoyed the fact that director Blomkamp encodes his critique of modern, globalized humanity in many of the visuals he crafts. For instance, during a military raid by MNU, Blomkamp cuts to a "gun cam," a first-person-shooter-style perspective that closely resembles contemporary video games like Call to Duty: Modern Warfare 2. That's what this raid really is to the hired guns of MNU: a game in which they get to kill Prawns. One character (the villain of the piece) even rants about how he loves to kill Prawns, and the video-game-style action sequences reflect this lack of humanity on the part of the soldiers.

The mockumentary approach utilized often by District 9 -- consisting of "B-roll" footage of interviewees, fake archive footage of the mothership's arrival 20 years earlier, and "live" newsfeeds -- also contributes to the film's critique of modern man. We know what is happening to Wikus; even as interviewees make blatantly false statements, or news feeds pop-up with BREAKING NEWS ALERTS of the most dramatic (and incorrect) variety.

In some corners, District 9 has been criticized because of the film's final act. Basically, the climax involves a sustained (and dramatic) shoot-out between Wikus (in an armed, Prawn robot suit...) and the forces of MNU. The problem, according to some reviewers, is that all of the interesting satire and social commentary goes away, and the film degenerates into mere "action."

Personally, I didn't feel this was the case, and I can point precisely to the reason why: emotional investment. By the time of the final, lengthy gun battle in District 9, I felt heavily invested in the survival of Christopher Johnson and his son. The gunfight was about their survival; about their escape, and -- at least for me -- there was real suspense in that equation. Up to that point, District 9 had been so hardcore, so viciously true to its critiques of human nature, that I expected something terrible to happen. And in the vicious gunfight -- where Prawns are just inhuman targets to be blown apart -- tragedy was certainly a possibility. And the final shots of the film: involving Wikus and the metal/trash flower sculpture, are positively lyrical (and on point, thematically).

Way back in 1915, Franz Kafka worried about how the individual could possibly survive -- let alone flourish -- within an aggressive, overreaching establishment. He feared governments, judiciaries, and yes, corporations. District 9 is a clever realization and updating of Kafka's vision; one created with the very symbols Kafka himself deployed (particularly the metamorphosis of man into insect...). The result is a film that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with genre landrmarks such as Planet of the Apes (1968) and RoboCop (1987). All these films (popular entertainments, miraculously...) hold up a mirror to the audience. All of them ask us to look at the world we've made; and what might become of that world if we don't change trajectory. District 9 is pretty hard on the human race (but then, Planet of the Apes didn't exactly let us off the hook, either...) but maybe Blomkamp's film also serves as a wake-up call.

Are you a man? Or just a bug underfoot, ready to be stamped out by agendas much larger than your own?


  1. What a wonderful review!

    I saw this movie over the summer and (dare I admit it?) burst out in tears during the final frames. I felt really silly considering I was the only one crying, but I found District 9 to be extremely profound and moving.

    I agree, I was really invested in Christopher Johnson and his son. And Wickus. I came to love him during the final half of the film. He was so ignorant and easy to hate at the beginning, but I felt he really transformed (and not just literally). He was flawed, but I think his heart was good.

    I could cry now just thinking about the end of District 9. Wow.

    Btw, I have never seen Robocop. You know that scene towards the beginning when there is a Robocop demonstration and this guy gets killed in a board meeting? That scene horrified me so badly, I have not been able to bring myself to try to watch it.

    I'm a wimp! ;)

    Again John, this was wonderful to read!

  2. Amanda by Night:

    Thank you for your comment -- I'm so glad you enjoyed the review. And you know what? I'm right there with you in terms of how it affected me.

    I found myself choked up, unable to speak, actually, after District 9 ended. I was really moved by this film. I had a frog in my throat, and I know Kathryn thought I was crazy.

    Go back at watch RoboCop if you can, but pass over the ED-209 massacre, and you'll find a lot of the same elements as in District 9: a social commentary and lots of egregious, almost video-game-style violence!


  3. I've got to see this! It was one of the few summer pictures I missed, and now I really regret that. And, holy lit class! I didn't know The Metamorphosis I studied in the course would have such an application in a sci-fi thriller as this. You've convinced me, JKM. And your examples of current corporate influence in media, and lies they sell to us, is chilling in its own right. Thought-provoking review and examination, JKM. Thanks for this.

    p.s., @Amanda, given of what I heard about the graphic images in District 9, if you can watch that, you certainly can watch (and enjoy) Robocop. I dare say that both Verhoeven films, Robocop and Starship Troopers, offer some of the sharpest (and popularly violent) cinema criticism/commentary of corporate greed, dogma, and fascism from the last century. They are worthy viewing.

  4. Through all of its bleakness, District 9 ended with a profound message of hope. The hope that it offers is commensurate with the bleakness that preceded it: If it were less bleak, it could not have been as hopeful.

    It seems that the film had a profound impact on all of us.


  5. Loved reading your thoughts on this, which is probably the best SF movie of the decade.
    I want to second leOpard13's addition of Starship Troopers to your list of POTA and Robocop as terrific misanthropic satire masquerading (quite effectively) as action-packed entertainment. I will say, for myself, that of the four District 9 is, oddly, the most hopeful... Apes ends bleakly and devastatingly ("You blew it up!") and Troopers ironically (fascism wins, and the audience cheers); Robocop has a positive ending - Robocop rediscovers his humanity - but Wikus never really becomes truly human in the best sense until he no longer is (hmm, they've paved paradise and put up a parking lot). (The character of Wikus' lieutenant, who places himself in danger to blow the whistle on MNU, indicates that Blomkamp doesn't believe humanity is lost, but that we've lost our humanity... Kafka-esque situations are always described as dehumanizing, after all).

    Regarding the actiuon finale: I agree, its a spurious complaint. Note that the best action beat (Wikus-in-robo-suit grabs rocket from air) is shown ad infinitum in trailers preceding the film's release... yet when the scene screens there is no loss of excitement at that thrilling special effect... even more, the action becomes stand-up-and-cheer, even moving, because of the context that has been established and because of Wikus' long, slow transformation from human insect to insect-shaped human.

  6. I definitely second (or third...) the recommendation of Starship Troopers here: as vicious, blazing and brutal (and funny) a satire of the American way as has ever been crafted in a "mainstream" action movie.

    I also agree, Pete, that there is hope in District 9 -- a critical element, as you noted.

    You guys (and gal!) are the best. Glad to see I'm not alone by a mile in my admiration for District 9. I agree with you DLR: surely it mus be in contention for best sci-fi film of the last decade.


  7. Totally with the Kafka comparisons. Just a note that the noble alien thing doesn't quite fit with the scavenging brutalised prawns that tear pople to bits, just as humanity varies between the self-sacrificing assistant who goes to prison for revealing MNU's illegal bio research or Wikus himself, finding his own obility, and the brutalised materialism or plain sick violence of others: I think rather they reflect humanity in all its dizzying variety. What a piece of work is man, indeed!

  8. I just watched this film for the first time last night. It was my wife's second time and at the end, she broke into an uncontrolled torrent of sobs that lasted several minutes. I wasn't as affected, but I saw why she was. This is a very depressing movie, one that basically upholds the worst in humans.

    My only quibble is that MNU, upon learning that Wikus has been infected, acts against their own best interests. Here they have a subject more sympathetic to their needs than the Prawns, more understanding of their viewpoint. They've showed their ability to lie with honey in order to get what they want -- it would've been nothing to do so with Wikus. Instead, MNU acts out of nothing but sheer brute, idiot force and ends up bringing on their own ruin/prolonged inconvenience. Such a tactic serves the movement of the plot but doesn't ring particularly true.

    Otherwise, this film was absolute brilliance and I can't wait to watch it again, despite the fact that it tears at my heart a little. There's so much to explore still.

  9. Nate:

    Great comment. I am there with your wife: this film is deeply affecting to me as a statement of the human (and alien...) condition.

    It sounds absolutely crazy and nutso but in Christopher Johnson and his little son, I can't help but see my human father-son relationships, and my relationship with my three year old, Joel. Gosh...

    But you are right -- MNU would have gotten further with honey than with surgical instruments...


  10. This is a great review, but isn't the whole individual versus institution thing more Orwell than Kafka (though that would lose the nice bug connection)?

    In Kafka, everybody seems at a loss. The straight world, Gregor's family, and Gregor himself all seem a bit gobsmacked by the transformation. It isn't that tey don't want to help, but rather that their world can't fit him. It isn't sinister, but impotent. (That's why I've always felt that The Meta is a allegory for a family crushe by the mental illness of one of its members.) Ultimately, Gregor's death, which frees them from the system bucking weirdness of his transformation, liberates his family. They are so genuinely happy to see him go and his death is the only "noble" thing he's ever done.

    In the The Trial, for another example, K. is dragged before a judge who is equally confused that K. isn't the house painter that the judge thought was supposed to be on trial. In fact, the judge seems willing to let him off until K. declares heroically that he won't appear at his other hearings, a statement that makes the judge assume there are more hearings and convinces him to send the paperwork on. K. gets killed because of a dumb misunderstanding and a clerical error.

    It doesn't seem, from your analysis, that the characters in D9 live in the same world of darkly comedic errors and blind fate. It requires heroes and villains, something Kafka found comically absurd.

    Am I misreading your take? Am I misreading Kafka?

    All that said, I haven't read a review this engaged and passionate in, hell, decades. Great writing.

  11. CRwM: Thank you so much for a thoughtful comment (and for the compliment on the writing!) I appreciate your words so much!

    I don't think you are misreading Kafka at all, and the Orwell comparison is probably good too. I wonder if I should have used Orwell as the start point (but the man to bug transformation was so startling...).

    As far as D9 and Kafka, I felt -- and I could be very wrong -- that the film's characters do live in a darkly comic world (kind of like Robocop).

    Wikus -- trying to show off in front of his subordinates -- ends up spraying the black fluid in his face, and changing his entire existence. It's sort of horrific slapstick when it happens.

    And, there is one way of reading the film in which there are no real (human) heroes, per se. Wikus shows backbone (and stands up for Christopher Johnson and son), only when he's been "infected" or suffused with Prawn DNA. In other words, when he's less human or even no longer human. I don't mean to take anything away from him (especially given the haunting ending), but I wonder if Wikus becomes more noble and understanding once he is in the skin of a prawn. Again, that strikes me as very Kafkaesque: finding your heart when you're a bug.

    Your comment was so good, it made me realize I need to brush up on Orwell now and perhaps offer an alternate reading of the film...

    Thanks for the thought-provoking ideas...


  12. I finally watched this, and I agree that it was one of the best films of '09. Additionally, I wholeheartedly agree that it is on the same level as the genre landmarks film you mention, JKM. I spoke with a co-worker recently who saw this last summer with a friend from South Africa. She said that her friend pointed out the many inferences (obvious and subtle) concerning Apartheid in the film.

    As well, the one person (interviewed throughout the film) who lists the possibilities of what could happen upon the return of Christopher Johnson harkens back to the worry among Afrikaners after Apartheid ended (something Eastwood's film Invictus covered well). That realization really brought home the "wake up call" of Blomkamp's film, as you mentioned.

    Besides that haunting final image of Wikus, for me, was Christopher Johnson's stunned inaction while he gaped at the results of human experimentation on his brethren. It was a poignant and feeling counter to the first person shooter perspective offered here. This film is pretty unforgettable. Thanks, again, John.

  13. Forgive me in advance if I repeat any thoughts from the previous comments. I will be reading those soon.

    Your piece is inpspiring JKM, as is most of your writing as I'm discovering. I will need to reach back to the classics for this book, The Metamorphosis.

    I must tell you this is precisely how the film worked its way into my own heart. What a powerful, visionary work and your parallel to the aformentioned book can't pssibly be by accident for Blomkamp.

    It's been evident for some time that Director David Cronenberg has been inspired by the work of Kafka. The Fly literally features the kinds of transformations you mention. And to some degree, and I have not seen it, I believe Cronenberg's Naked Lunch also points to the influence of Kafka. Until District 9 came along, The Fly may have been the best at making such a powerful statement. District 9 takes it to a new level incorporating the politics and other social elements you mention here. I haven't read the book, but District 9 has to be a modern interpretation of such a classic.

    There are so many wonderful points made in your commentary JKM. From the "gun cam" observation to your suggestion of modern media overload. Your comparisons to our handling of Iraq is certainly stinging and rings true

    I, too, feel the climax is powerful as a result of our "emotional investment" as you mentioned. I feel a percentage of people really missed the boat with this one, but many more saw the picture as you describe it.

    The handling of Christopher is so heartwrenching based on everything we know about his love of son and home. When he looks downward at gunpoint - lost, he's more human than we are. That is a killer moment among many.

    The ending is one of the finest on film I've seen in a long time, poetic like Blade Runner was poetic with Rutget Hauer and the dove in the rain. It's just a powerful moment.

    Your insights are equally thoughtprovoking John. Thank you. They inspire me to improve my own writing and make me realize I have a long way to go. : )

    Went back to read all of the wonderful comments and concur with all. There is so much to explore with this film and the emotional payoff is extraordinary. I haven't felt moved by a movie like this one in a long time.

  14. SFF:

    Great comment my friend, and thank you for the kind words. You are no slouch in the review department yourself -- I have enjoyed reading your insights on your blog as well.

    And yes, this is an enormously moving film. You don't realize it at first, and than it hits you like a brick.

    I would love to see it win an Oscar for Best Picture...