District 9–Some Questions

I meant to post this awhile back, forgot about it, and then read this wonderful analysis by Nnedi on her blog. In addition to the stuff about Nigerians, this really resonated in her complaints about the movie: “It bothers me that this film has gotten such stellar reviews. But I guess that just shows how low people’s standards for Hollywood films are. The problem with setting your standards low so you can enjoy movies is that it allows them to get away with some serious irresponsible rubbish. And it makes directors, writers, and producers very very lazy. I want to see an SF film set in Africa as much as anyone but I don’t like to see things done half-assed.”

A few legitimate questions that came to mind, considering the ultra-realistic/documentary style of the movie, at least at the beginning.

Warning: The questions suggest spoilers.

Why were there over a million aliens, serving no particular function, in the ship? And why only one or two “intelligent” ones?

Why was the command module on the outside of the spaceship, where it would be vulnerable to any attack at any point on its journey through space and then down to Earth?

If the aliens are portrayed as mindless drones except for a few “brainy” types, how can the movie be an allegory for the situation in South Africa during Apartheid? Or even about racism and how we perceive “the other” in general?

What is the reaction of the rest of the world to the aliens? Have any aliens ever been sent to other countries?

Why do the aliens never use their powerful weapons to defend themselves, even when severely provoked?

How did they manage, especially in their starved state, to bring all of those weapons down to Earth in the first place without the weapons being confiscated?

Why does the alien engineer’s son look a lot more like a soulful ET than the other alien juveniles?

How old is the alien engineer? And how old is his kid?

The black fluid the alien engineer needs to power the control module comes only from alien technology, none of which was, it appears, created after the aliens were taken off the ship. Why didn’t the alien engineer just collect it while still on the ship before they had to make their emergency “landing” on Earth? Or even thereafter. Why, instead, did he wait and have to spend decades collecting it from alien rubbish in District 9?

Is it really possible that most Nigerians ar so superstitious and naive as to think that eating an alien arm would not only give them the strength of the alien but also, very specifically, allow them to fire an alien weapon? And, assuming not, wouldn’t it have been more interesting and useful to the story to portray them as, erm, somewhat more savvy, at the very least? And why “the Nigerians.” Presumably they’re part of some gang. What’s the gang’s name?

How did the protagonist get back into the military research labs with his alien friend? Was security so stupid they didn’t change the codes? And why would he know the codes to the secret labs he was tortured in, anyway?

Would the evil researchers really have left the tube of black fluid in the same area as where they keep the tortured corpses? (And, erm, why do they keep the tortured corpses around and seem to be so bad at cleaning stuff up?)

Why wouldn’t the evil researchers have sedated the protagonist long before the moment when they were going to cut out his heart? This seems sensible since it would then preempt any Hollywood-ish last bid for freedom.

How do the protagonist and the alien engineer manage to not only escape through the city streets but also get back into District 9, given that it’s surrounded by military personnel and, erm, presumably all of the entrances and exits are guarded?

Why did the protagonist think it was a good idea to knock the alien engineer down and take off in the command module himself, given that there’s no way he would be able to fix himself on the alien ship, or anywhere else?

Why does the protagonist have a change of heart only when he puts on the transformers power suit? Why doesn’t he have the change of heart after he is tortured, forced to kill an alien, almost has his organs cut out, and then is hunted down like an animal?

Come to think of it, why would the authorities allow a huge alien powersuit to exist in District 9, given that it seems like it would be a difficult thing to hide?

Comments

  1. says

    All good points that prove the marketing team behind District 9 did their job well to sell it as an intelligent, topical piece of SF regardless of the holes in it. I guess at the end of the day I enjoyed it most for the action-packed finale, and power suits are never not cool.

    I’ve also noticed a quietly emerging trend of criticising Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as well. Maybe now that all the hubbub has died down, it’s easier to analyse the trilogy with a more objective eye.

  2. says

    Wow, lots of good questions.
    I’ll start out by saying that when I see a stereotype presented on the big or little screen, I don’t immediately assume that everyone belonging to the depicted group is like those in the story. I did not take away from District 9 that all Nigerians are superstitious gang criminals. (In fact, I think the were presented in a way that might have been an homage to the drug gang (Nigerians? Haitians?) depicted in the beginning of the second Predator film.

    As for the aliens and their tech. I choose to believe that the aliens were presented as complete ciphers and everything that we supposedly know about them (from the film) was purposefully confusing and incomplete. The message this deliver is: we know absolutely nothing about them and yet are willing to treat them this way. Monkey with a handgun, and his curiosity is likely to get his head blown off.

    I’ve seen aliens in other stories who were seriously affected by dietary issues (Brunner’s Crucible of Time comes to mind). I’ve seen aliens who go through multiple life stages, others where only one sex was sentient, etc., etc. I don’t think the point here was to depict a complete and logical alien species. Rather, it was to create an ‘other’ (with just enough back story to be intriguing) that could stand-in for any oppressed minority. (What does the average westerner know about Islamic culture? Or even ‘bizarre’ aspects of our own; what is a person’s immediate reaction to, say, sects in which speaking in tongues is revered?)

    I give the movie a pass in regards to the above with anything involving the alien’s technology. We don’t know anything about them, how they think, nothing. We therefore can’t judge in any way why they do what they do. I presume that it makes sense and that I’m the one missing the information that would make this clear.

    (Command ship on the outside of the large vessel? Maybe for quarantine control? Maybe there is more than one? Maybe it is not a “command ship” but a scouting vessel.)

    Why didn’t they use their weapons? Maybe they are under an injunction to save the power supply. Maybe they are the civilian refugees from a way and really don’t know how to use them. Maybe they’re the victors in a ship-wide civil war between the peaceniks and the warmongers. Maybe the weapons are sub-standard trade goods. Maybe the ship is a smuggler’s ship and the paying passengers didn’t even know they were there.

    I can’t make up “excuses” for some of the flaws you’ve mentioned, other than to say I’ve yet to see a perfect film. We can poke holes in Casablanca if we want do (but don’t – I’ll get very angry. And leave Lawrence of Arabia alone too. Most of John Wayne and a few other ‘perfect’ films I could mention but won’t.)

    I think that when a film is so obviously presented as metaphor that this kind of critical analysis kind of misses the point. My take-away was: yep, as a species we’re a bunch of cruel, self-aggrandizing, fearful and often stupid lot that is just as likely to shoot the gift horse in the mouth as we are to look at it. Having that message pointed out in a film that is above par, and in a manner that can be accepted by most of the unthinking monkeys is a good thing.

    (Film as metaphor. Take Bambi vs Godzilla as another example. What point is there in discussing the fact that a deer would hear/smell/see Godzilla coming?)

  3. says

    But it’s not presented as metaphor. It’s shot in gritty realistic documentary style. That style can support satire a lot easier than it can the kind of metaphor you’re talking about.

    Anyway, my main problem with the movie is that it has no integrity of form. It’s gritty docu-drama in the first half and typical brainless, stupid action movie in the second.

  4. David H. says

    There’s an interview with the director regarding a few of these points: http://www.avclub.com/articles/district-9-director-neill-blomkamp,31606/

    One thing I think, though, is that I don’t think there were a million Prawn on the mothership–remember, they keep breeding, and it’s been I think 20 years since they arrived. I don’t know how many there must’ve been originally.

    Another thing that the AV Club interview indicated above was that the Prawn Queen/Elites somehow all died. All that were left were the drones. Christopher is apparently an instance of the hive trying to recreate some Elites, which is why he’s apparently more intelligent. *shrugs* I enjoyed the film for what it was. I try not to overthink it too much, though I do hope that a sequel is made, though I have no idea how it would end up.

  5. Joe G says

    Let me add two more:

    A high-tech alien spacecraft parks itself in orbit above South Africa in the waning (but still verbally belligerent) days of the Cold War, and neither the CIA nor the KGB are able to have any influence on the situation? (I’ll give this one a pass since it probably distracts too much from the metaphor being attempted.)

    We have these aliens who a) know how to operate their equipment on at least a rudimentary level, b) are inclined to listen to authority, and c) are easily bribed with catfood, and the South African military-industrial complex over twenty years couldn’t compel even a couple of them to help with weapons research? The Nigerian gangsters got more cooperation from the prawns than the government did!

  6. Claire says

    Some of the questions (especially the ones about the aliens, their origins, and their motivations) were left deliberately unanswered. The humans didn’t seem to much care, and it could be, as others have suggested, that many or all of the aliens didn’t really know the story, either. On the commercial side, not answering those questions also makes for a possible prequel or sequel. And, yeah, maybe the filmmakers didn’t bother thinking much about those questions because they didn’t care about them for this film.

    Many of the other questions can be answered by assuming that the multinational mercenaries are incredibly arrogant. The head of the corporation (Wikus’s father-in-law) was pretty contemptuous of Wikus well before he started turning into an alien. On the security questions, the last time I checked, people are really lazy about changing passcodes and such — plus they had their best men hunting down the freak, so why bother changing everything for no reason, there’s no way the guy would ever make it out of District 9 and to headquarters unless he was under their control. (Also, I’m pretty sure I remember them either using someone else’s ID card or blasting the locks or both).

    The butcher-shop mess in the lab was a combination of ongoing experiments and, no doubt, laziness and contempt. We’re supposed to hate the corporation, and having them be disgustingly slipshod about their torture helps that feeling along quite well. Abu Ghraib looked pretty clean in the pictures, but I bet some of the extraordinary rendition sites aren’t so nice.

    As for the “protagonist”‘s slow turnaround, I would say that (1) he’s not very smart and (2) he was in a position of authority within the company and the son-in-law of the CEO, and thus expected to be treated as an important and valuable person who would be worth rescuing. He turned on the company only when their actions made it clear that they were going to cut him up just like any other prawn, and, if I remember correctly, only after his wife made it clear she didn’t want to see him again. His panic when he tried to steal the ship near the end resulted after he was told Christopher couldn’t fix him then and there; I doubt he was thinking clearly at all when he attacked him and tried to fly the ship.

    I’m also not sure it’s entirely fair to say the movie turns into a plain ol’ dumb action movie once Chekhov’s power suit is used. The suit does some amount of destruction, saves the little ship, and allows the protagonist to redeem himself a bit in our eyes. But in the end it fizzles and dies, and he gets beat up by the mean mercenary guy who’s always hated him. It’s another alien who saves him.

    The movie’s not perfect, by a long shot, but it’s not quite as bad as some people have suggested. And for me, at least, despite the few good things he does during the film, mostly out of desperation, Wikus remains unsympathetic throughout the whole film. Even at the end, he’s still all about himself and his need for his wife.

    The real hero in the film, I think, is the system administrator who leaked all the information about MNU’s torture and other evil behavior towards the prawns and ended up going to jail for doing so. The story seems to be all about Wikus because it’s based on that information. Whatever else may have been learned about the aliens is outside of that particular media-friendly story (evil corporation gets caught).

  7. says

    Many unanswered question. The documentary film style seemed to be dropped early on and only “remembered” again at the end. Here are some questions I posted in my review a few weeks ago:

    District 9 doesn’t answer some basic questions:
    1. The alien weaponry shown is rather large and hard to hide. Why wasn’t it confiscated long ago?

    2. If there was an alien ship within reach, wouldn’t it have been teeming with human scientists and engineers trying to figure it out? Or scrap metal dealers taking it apart? After 20 years would there be anything left?

    3. All the characters behave as if the huge ship is dormant, but how could it be? Vast energies would be required for it to maintain its position. Geosynchronous orbit (staying above the same spot on Earth with no further expenditure of energy) requires a height of 22,000 miles.

  8. says

    Those are good ones, SF Strangelove.

    I guess I raise the questions because I don’t believe the filmmakers actually know the answers. There are plenty of questions I raise when writing a novel that I don’t provide the answers for in the text–but I know the answers to them. To not know the answers affects the integrity of the film or novel.

  9. says

    I agree about authors knowing but not telling. I always have that feeling reading a Gene Wolfe story. Authors who over-explain are doing nobody a favor.

    As you say, with District 9 there appears to be no underlying logic. I would enjoy knowing more about the aliens and their culture, but I don’t have a sense from the movie that the filmmakers have really thought about that.

  10. says

    I agree that writers don’t have to/shouldn’t give all the answers, but there should always be a sense that those answers are out there, or that readers have the space to make logical assumptions/conclusions. The problem with District 9 seems to be that while some answers appear to be tied up in the ‘missing’ history of the last 20 years (which isn’t the focus of the film’s story, so it’s probably not fair to expect to know very much more than we’re told), too many questions can be explained away by this, and the rest are just logical missteps. It asks us to have too much faith that the answers are in the previous 20 years. Obviously for those who love the movie, this isn’t a problem, but it definitely becomes one when you stop and think about the film.

  11. says

    There’s a an incisive piece by a South African writer on D9 which made me rethink my opinion of the movie – and give it a lot more weight and credit, despite the glaring plotholes, lack of female characters and troubling Nigerian representation.

    It’s the best critique of District 9 I’ve read, with a lot of insight from the South African perspective – and I’d recommend it: http://asubtleknife.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/science-fiction-in-the-ghetto-loving-the-alien/

    The reality of the apartheid regime was that as terrifying as our secret police operation Special Branch was with its letter bombs and covert assassinations and torture (refer Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull about the Truth Commission hearings or Peter Harris’ wrenching In A Different Time about the trial of the Delmas Four, an ANC hit squad who believed they were forced to kill) their superiority and contemptuousness meant they were sometimes also laughably stupid.

    The banality of evil leads to the bumbling of evil too – and the movie hit that nail with a laser-targeted hammer.

  12. jeffv says

    Lauren–will check that out. I totally get the incompetence/stupidity thing, but I found it indistinguishable in District 9 from what you’d find in a mediocre Hollywood action film. It’s not interesting on the screen.

  13. Drax says

    “….my main problem with the movie is that it has no integrity of form. It’s gritty docu-drama in the first half and typical brainless, stupid action movie in the second…”

    I agree with this sensibility, but only to a certain extent. I think that if D9 had maintained the doc format for the entire film it would have ended up as a static and odd cinematic curio. I very much admire a work that has the nerve to switch gears… IF it works. I thought it worked here. But I am fond of “dumb-old action,” even if logically part of us screams, “But how?! But why?!” as the explosions ensue. Maybe it’s wrong to issue such a blanket pass, but it’s a movie, man. Would it be “better” if everything stopped in order explain everything?

    My biggest gripe? It didn’t conclude. Like a DOPE I thought it would go “all the way.” Give us Heaven or give us Hell, but give it to us. We’ve already seen the great big gross cinematic trilogy. Just do it. Flaws and all, go all the way.

  14. says

    Simon:

    Yep, sure, re changing the form, but I would argue mixing in the two approaches from the start would’ve made more sense.

    Regarding action films…it’s not a matter of stopping to explain. It’s a matter of scriptwriters not writing themselves into corners logic-wise. There would’ve been plenty of ways to *never get into a situation where it raises a question in the moviegoer’s mind*. Good action films have thought out these issues beforehand and the script reflects that forethought.

  15. Drax says

    Jeff, you’re right. Of course. But I would very much like to see the beast so elegantly built that it supplies blasting action without raising SOME questions in even half-awake minds like mine. It is… it is the nature of the beast. For sensate sucking dolts like me, anyway. But, you’re right, you’re right.

  16. says

    @Drax, smart killer action is totally doable: Children of Men especially, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, that Liam Neeson teen-trafficking thriller, where the violence and explosions were believable, kickass and it felt like something was at stake.

    Jeff, I know what you mean. I think South Africans probably got a lot more out of the movie than international audiences, which is a problem and I likewise enjoyed the dark satire of the first half much more than the second. Although that MNU mercenary was pitch perfect.

    I’m very, very interested to see what Blomkamp does next.

  17. says

    Lauren–I can totally see that, re different audiences. I was going to add that the same stupidity introduced into a drama set in the world we now, during Apartheid, would’ve been darkly absurd in a good way, if you know what I mean. That taken out of that context and put in the context of a Hollywood action movie, it loses some of that impact.

    And I totally agree with those examples–Children of Men and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are awesome examples of smart action that make sense and are still thrilling. (And thanks for the KKBB shout-out. That movie doesn’t get enough respect!)

    For single combat, the bath house scene in Eastern Promises cannot be beat for its realism–and for going against the grain of quick cuts in movies, by being one long, continuous, well-choreographed scene.

  18. says

    I completely agree with you Jeff. I think D9 is a really confused movie, both stylistically and ideologically.

    One of the points I really dislike is the film’s portrayal of Wikus, which was praised for bravely depicting an unlikeable character although one we can still find something likeable. But for me he was a classic racist from beginning to end. The difference between him and the more hardcore racist soldiers was that Wikus liked to tame/hide the horror of racism (use of catfood, making jokes) while still achieving the same ends. The film presents this racism as a kind of likeable ignorance/stupidity – it’s a jocular and ‘naive’ racism that’s easier to stomach. But to me Wikus is a far more dislikeable character precisely because he’s so disingenous – at least the soldiers were honest and coherent about their beliefs! Even Wikus’ sudden character shift at the end seemed more reckless and arbitrary than a genuine move away from his desperate and selfish actions.

    I take a look at the racist subtext of the film in more detail here: http://daveguzman.blogspot.com/2009/08/is-district-9-racist.html