The James Clayton Column: District 9 and Alien Discrimination

Aliens will probably come in peace...until the riot police turn up...

District 9

Now that District 9 has hovered into view, I’d say the time is right to finally face up to reality and drop all the delusions we’ve been carrying about human contact with aliens. Indeed, we shouldn’t be happy to see this movie simply because it offers some late-summer sci-fi spectacle, but also because it appears to offer some earnest insight rare in the movies. It’s taken long enough, but here we may at last have the film that gives a more realistic representation of how the encounter with extra-terrestrial life forms would really happen.

When it comes to belief in aliens, I’m inclined towards H.P. Lovecraft’s opinion that any visiting creatures from cosmic vistas beyond our stratosphere would be absolutely unlike anything within our ‘earthly’ understanding and experience. As such, instead of being little green men or slimy beasts that look a bit like Earth animals, they’d probably not even have any kind of anatomy as we know it. They would, in fact, more likely come to us as nebulous gases, disembodied space odours or luminescent thought-bubbles that communicate through telekinetic currents of electrical energy.

That school of thought poses a challenge for blockbuster movie production, so it’s understandable why District 9 would go down the usual route of having humanoid aliens that the audience can identify and recognise. What Neill Blomkamp’s film does do though is affirm one of my other key beliefs about alien landings on Earth. As it does this, District 9 challenges convention and gives cinemagoers something stimulating and thought-provoking in contrast to the age-old clichés that have been carried on by sci-fi horrors for decades.

This is the truth: if aliens landed they would not begin wiping out human civilisation, hit its architectural monuments and occupy our planet as a new master. I reckon that, in fact, it would be the total opposite: the visitors would instead find themselves immediately incarcerated as a dangerous entity on the basis of their ‘inhumanity, before being scientifically studied and exploited for human-gain.

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Conceptually, District 9 agrees, as it presents a world where extraterrestrials are kept segregated in an Apartheid-style arrangement, housed in a slum controlled by private military contractors.

Thanks to the backing of Peter Jackson and the full power of the Weta special effects people, Blomkamp has been able to adapt his short movie Alive in Joburg as a big blockbuster. Though now supersized, the feature-length flick still retains not only the mock-doc style, but most crucially the South African setting and the contextual basis in the institutionalised racism of Apartheid. What we have here is an alien-themed film more about discrimination than doomsday panic and perceived threat from the skies.

We’ve seen the King Kong flicks and Creature from the Black Lagoon and so we know that humanity takes extraordinary ‘monsters’ and makes them into a research project, pets for rich kids or a money-spinning sideshow. In contrast to the number of creature features that have recognised this sad truth though, aliens have all too often been approached as omnipotent invaders with few alternatives throughout film history.

It’s probably only the ugliness of the aliens in District 9 that prevents domestication and consequently they are categorised as undesirable elements to be kept under observation. So it goes then that the space-beings suffer in a system built on prejudice and pernicious contempt. Oh, the inhumanity! What happened to the dream of intergalactic harmony?

Alien designs on annihilating the human race would really only come after a prolonged period of persecution. In ‘reality’, the War of the Worlds fuse-lighting moment would most likely only flare after the extraterrestrials had exhausted diplomatic avenues and had a stab at political activism. Only after Alien Rights protesters experienced police brutality at their benefit concerts and educational sit-ins would the ones-not-of-this-planet rise up with anger against Earthlings.

In District 9, this clash between humans and “prawns” plays out in a more likely place than movie wisdom would traditionally have it: the streets of South Africa. Where do the powers-that-be dump their undesirables in the ‘real’ world? They bury them out-of-sight, out-of-mind in the third-world and so the location of the zone of the title in Africa – the crisis continent that the ‘civilised’ world wishes to ignore – is appropriate.

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The setting in Blomkamp’s own home country also makes a change from the trips to America that invasion movies have made repeatedly. What makes the USA so special that space travellers would select it as the landing site? Why, when there’s an entire globe of divergent cultures to go at, would they pinpoint Washington D.C., New York City or the Arizona desert in particular?

You’d assume that the sentient beings would seek to communicate with intelligent representatives of the human race and, having seen Raising Arizona, we know that they won’t be found in the Copper State. Every invasion film that instantly springs to my mind – excepting The Thing – has the extraterrestrials arriving in the US of A, either seeking to hit the landmarks of Washington or infiltrate Earth through the country’s rural backwaters.

I put it to you that if there are aliens out there, if they had any interest in visiting Earth they’d send a polite request for landing clearance rather than ram their flying saucers into the White House. They’d be more interested in observing the Earth’s bio-systems and learning about the planet’s inhabitants than in destroying civilisation with death rays. What’s the point of travelling across the Milky Way if you’re only going to obliterate your final destination?

For not perpetuating the myth that the extraterrestrials are all out to get us and that, actually, the world is actually aggressively against them, I salute District 9. (People’s eagerness to deny the existence of life ‘out-there’ is testament to this vicious hatred.) This film may be serving the greater intergalactic good better than any movie since E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

Empathise with the space-travellers. They only want to have a conversation with us, teach us how to care for our plants and pass on their wisdom of worlds beyond the stars. All the human race wants is rid of the cosmic ‘other’ before they’ve even got over their intergalactic jet-lag. Until hostile discrimination against non-humans is eliminated, issue movies like District 9 are essential.

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James’ previous column can be found here.