forwhenifeellikesharing has a good review up on District 9. I’m going to respond to a few points that are brought up because I had actually thought about them while watching the film but I came to different conclusions. (Unfortunately I’m not reblogging because the original post has this gratuitously huge poster photo attached.)
If you haven’t seen the film, by the way, this post probably won’t be of much use and also contains spoilers. So I say to you, go and see it first!
First of all, my take of what the film was about. Wikus’s alienation provides the drama for the film. That said, there’s a ton of background stuff going on. Aliens, South Africa, Nigerian scams, the quasi-corporate-public-entity MNU, excessive violence, etc. But still I think the film was about Wikus. The background helped to explain his character.
Maybe it’s still a bit novel, but cinéma vérité techniques feel played out given the amount of horror and action movies that have used them in recent years (Quarantine, Cloverfield), but more so the amount of recent TV shows to do so (Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights,Curb Your Enthusiasm, Reno 911! and Arrested Development to name a few). It’s not like these techniques can’t be used, but they have a tendency to feel like a cheap attempt to give a film “real world” substance and legitimacy.
I think that the documentary framing was actually important and essential to the film’s alienation theme. I’ll start by describing, to me, what this documentary form accomplishes.
The big effect that’s really direct and essentially different than other forms of filmmaking is the relationship between camera, audience, and subject. As a subject of a documentary (at least in District 9’s context) you know you’re being filmed. Wikus was painfully aware. He was projecting an image for the audience’s benefit. You could clearly see his desire to please the audience. He was concerned with the “political image” of his interaction with both the military and the Prawns; i.e. it was all largely for show. This is amplified by the fact that Wikus was in a political position; he was the face of MNU’s operation in District 9 to some extent. Consequently as an audience member you are aware that you are being told a story. “Being told” as opposed to “shown the truth,” that is it’s explicitly filtered through a lens.
[Aside: Some might argue that adopting documentary form in a film is actually saying the opposite: this is the truth of what happened. I disagree entirely. The documentary form is like an added layer to the whole story in addition to be the filter through which we view it. Also documentary form is distinct from cinéma vérité, which is sort of a less explicit cinematographic style that a documentary usually adopts, but it’s patently clear that a) someone commissioned at least parts of the District 9 footage and b) again, in parts, the people in the film were aware of being filmed.]
The point I get from this is that Wikus is really concerned with his appearance; it may be all that matters to him. Appearance in the abstract sense of “how society sees you.” His job is the obvious big factor here. He cares so much about how he fits in at his job that he tries to hide the fact that something wrong is going on (e.g. black stuff running out of his nose). And when it becomes clear to everyone that something is very, very wrong, well… the appearance of fitting in is demonstrated to be just that, an appearance. It also becomes clear (it perhaps should have been clear before) the only reason he had his job was for some particular use his father in-law had for him.
I’m trying to say basically that the documentary flavor to D9 was not to satisfy the need for some trendy aesthetic. Partially, perhaps. But I’m fairly certain it was deliberate for the reasons above. It also isn’t trying to be “more real” by appearing like some future documentary. It’s not saying, this is what really would happen! Far from it. The form is there to better tell a story about alienation. It works nicely.
There’s also an absurdity to the circumstances of the film to begin with. The lead character, Sharlto Copley’s Wikus van der Merwe, is a likeable goofball despite being somewhat bigoted and dimwitted. He ends up on the run from his villainous father-in-law after he makes a bumbling error and starts to become an alien. It’s an almost farcical set-up, which might be fine if it wasn’t trying to be a realistic portrayal of what might happen if aliens did become stranded on Earth.
Farcical is an interesting word to use here. I was discussing the film with my good friend amkelly and it came up: some review he had read said the same thing, only maybe more strongly, and he and I agreed it’s an odd conclusion. With a farce, you really need the comedy. I don’t get that. I grant that Wikus is bumbling. But his bumbling is at the expense of the lives and respect of Prawns. I guess if you just see the Prawns as these crazy goons then maybe it’s a farce. So it depends somewhat on your perspective. But, even still… really? I thought the scenes of Wikus in the bio lab were pretty intense. The bio lab scene seemed to nail it for Wikus that he’s really just this impersonal cog in the MNU machine and he’s only tolerated as a human as long as there’s a use for him. When that use disappears or changes — when he becomes more useful as a weapon — that respect vanishes. He’s treated like a lab animal. And he knows they see him as a lab animal. No more bumbling.
I really don’t think it’s fair to pass off the film as a farce that doesn’t make any sense. I think you focus too much on the “realistic portrayal” bit. The film isn’t making the case that “if aliens crash on our planet, we’ll treat them like soulless bottom-feeders!” or “if aliens crash, then necessarily there will be this weird alien goo stuff that both powers the alien ship AND turns humans into them!” A better way to think about it is, “why is this particular bit included in the story, what is the effect?” A good example for me is the ship floating over Johannesburg. Why did the aliens pick Joburg? Did they know it would give us all an allegory to work with? That’s not particularly important. But the image of this enormous ship looming, always included in the background of a picture of the city with a history of the apartheid, is an image that starts you thinking about how this elephant-in-the-room, looming-over-ness applies to both the story and South African history.
I read into the film (grain of salt) that Wikum is an archetype. This applies on two levels. One, Wikum is descriptive in his actions of a general model of how humans behave. Two, Wikum tries to fit a general model of how humans behave. In other words Wikum is conscious of the archetype-image and consciously tries to present that image. That he is bumbling is a little beside the point. Don’t we all bumble when we aim to please everybody?
Now for the alienation. It’s a purely physical process. Wikum literally stops fitting the mold of the archetype. The film makes it clear; he now physically fits into and can use alien technology. This theme of physicality comes back, by the way, in the form of lots and lots of gore. (Yes I thought that too had a place.) The rest of the film is now about Wikum’s realization that he doesn’t fit despite his frantic attempts to save his old life. The yes-a-bit clichéd turning point is when Wikum, while piloting the cool mech thing, stops running away, turns back, saves his Prawn friend and tries to kill the bad merc dude.
I really enjoyed the film. I saw a lot going on theme-wise and I’m sure there’s plenty I missed, so I’m considering a second viewing. The whole thing shouted Kafka to me, and I’ll need to re-read Metamorphosis.