Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Alien Story

Review of ‘District 9’ with comments on 'alien' issues it raises and hopes that the film will usher in a new era of filmmaking for Hollywood.

Who is an Alien? In one word - an outsider or the minority. It could be a religious minority, or the ones with a different idea or way of life, culture, or even mindset. Yet, connecting all sorts of alien with a common theme is that even they - no matter the type - live, breathe and feel like the rest of us. And this should be the basis of a humane, compassionate coexistence sans prejudice. This is the basis of Neill Blomkamp’s film ‘District 9’.


There's always something that the majority find fascinating in the minority. In 'District 9', it's technology. In real life, it's either cheap labour, propensity to a certain type of work etc.

The film, of course, takes the literal meaning of the word ‘Alien’ but the issues it raises, are very much a part of every nook and corner of spaceship earth.

A spaceship of alien suddenly floats above Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1980s and just hangs there for three months. When humans finally break into it, they find a million ‘prawn’ looking aliens, malnutritioned and dying on the ship. Humanity gives them shelter and a ghetto - ‘District 9’ - is formed. Yet, these aliens, who look and speak different from humans, are never accepted amidst the human race and a multinational corporation, cheekily and boldly called Multinational United, wants to harness the amazingly advanced weapons technology of these aliens for their own profit.

'District 9' for India would be Kashmir. For USA, after eliminating the original 'District 9' residents, the Red Indians, today it still is every corner of the country where blacks reside. For the world it is an entire continent of Africa - no one cares about the people who reside in the place where humanity originated, but everyone, including India (Indian corporations own millions of hectares of farmlands in Africa, even as they systematically and brutally convert Indian farmlands into industrial wastelands) is interested in what they have to offer.

The story is familiar. The alien race can be looked upon as the Negroes in America who have been ‘used’ by the nation but never fully accepted. Or they can be the Jews in Nazi Germany. Or they can be Muslims in India; or Indians in UK or Australia. All of these connected by one simple basic fact - each is useful to their community, but being in a minority are targeted by the dominant race of the region and never fully understood just because their looks, customs or cultures are different.

Whose responsibility is it then, to try and understand? Should the ‘aliens’ make themselves understood? If yes, then how? You can’t talk to closed minds. Or should the majority try and understand. That is more feasible. Perhaps, the answer is that both should make an attempt. Yet, the easy way taken by the majority in any race or culture, is of neglecting and even targeting ‘aliens’ and blaming them for the problems that beset them. Laziness is perhaps a quintessential human quality.

Hence, Wikus, one of the top managers in MNU, who is given the responsibility to evict the aliens from their ghetto into a settlement away from the city, looks gleeful while unplugging the nutrition supply nesting a swarm of alien babies, thus killing them. He does not see the ‘human’ side of these creatures but looks at them just as a nuisance that have to be curbed and segregated. Yet, his world takes a u-turn when he is accidentally exposed to a liquid from a secret instrument one of the aliens had been building and without his knowing begins turning into an alien himself.

Wickus talks concepts of ownership with a race that does not, unlike dumb humans, know the concept.

To his own company, MNU, he now becomes both a threat and an asset. Asset because MNU has had a huge cache of alien advanced weapons, but are unable to harness them as they are hard coded with alien DNA i.e. only an alien could use them. When Wikus, as part alien, is able to use the weapon, he becomes a multibillion dollar commodity, the most precious man (alien) on earth and everyone wants a pie of him, including a Nigerian militia whose intention is similar to MNUs, to become like the aliens and use the weapons. After Wikus escapes, he is hunted and with his images broadcast across the world; he is left with no friends. In a twist of fate, he retreats to the only place he knows MNU will not come looking for him, District 9.

When the doctor gets to taste his own medicine, he discovers 'humanity'.

Here, he finds an unusual ally in Christopher, the alien he had met the previous day, and exposure to whose instrument altered his own DNA. The two become unlikely partners with different goals, Christopher’s to be able to connect with his mother ship and fly back to his own planet and Wikus to reverse the DNA change and turn human again. Ironically, it is only by turning alien that Wikus becomes human in the true sense and meaning of the word. In the end his transformation to the true side of ‘humanity’ is complete as he is willing to sacrifice himself to save the alien.

The film sounds like a typical Hollywood film. Indeed, in many ways, it is. Yet, with its documentary style of narrative, it pushes Hollywood filmmaking into uncharted territories, explored only by World Cinema before and left untouched by a scared Hollywood despite the commendable success of ‘Blair Witch Project’ and other attempts like ‘Cloverfield’. Had the analogy of the aliens been replaced by say a different race of humans, like the blacks in America, it would have seemed like an entirely true documentary with candid moments, shaky camera, out of focus shots et al. And this is where the film scores a triumph - in not giving this film a ‘sanitised’ look like other sci-fi films like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Matrix’. Instead, the focus is the humanity or the lack of it in humans.

Gregory Peck, plays a reporter who goes undercover posing as a Jew, even when he is not, only to discover the sickening depth to which anti-Semitism runs, in Elia Kazan's Oscar winning masterpiece 'Gentleman's Agreement'. In India, it's still not very different with Muslims being denied basic fundamental rights just because of their religion. But, of course, like in 'Gentleman's Agreement' it is all very conveniently tacit.

The analogies in the film are too obvious for the comfort of any discerning world cinema lover. The landing of the spaceship in South Africa is an obvious statement against the apartheid and segregation of the blacks there. Also, how direct can a filmmaker be in making a statement against capitalism than calling the evil corporation ‘Multinational’ United? The film drives home the point against both racial conflict and capitalism like only Hollywood - the strongest surviving film industry in the world, can. And for the lovers of the perfectly shot and sanitary Hollywood films, it more than manages to create a film that is much more engaging, gritty and real, yet surpassing reality, than any recent film.

‘District 9’ is also a treat for lovers of cool CGI. Yet, the best part about the special effects is that first it is not the focal point of the film and secondly it treats them as if it were child’s play for the filmmakers to create. It is however obvious that the effects were not easy. For one, the aliens, at least the long shot of the aliens, is complete CGI, obvious because the stomach part of the aliens is so thin that it is impossible to do it in rubber or silicon body masks.

The only drawback to the film, from a puritanical perspective, is that it is conventional in parts, especially its ending, where the story is rounded up, something so essential in Hollywood filmmaking. One can guess that that is a compromise the makers had to make. Watching the film makes one glad that they took the chance.


Indians are targeting Muslims, tribals, Kashmiris, lower caste people in India. Indians are being targeted in Australia and UK. Blacks are targeted in the US. Americans are targeted in Muslim countries. Jews are still targeted in many places. The poor are targeted everywhere. Is everyone a freaking alien in this world?

The film borrows from the tradition of 30’s and 40s Hollywood (and the idea resembles ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’) where filmmakers with a conscience ruled the roost and made films that said something. Here the statement is about the minorities of the world, not necessarily based on the looks. The ‘alien’ in India for instance, could be the farmer community, whose suicide does not even ring a bell to the elite who are completely unaware how intricately their lives are intertwined and dependent on them.


The global success of ‘District 9’ will hopefully take commercial filmmaking into yet uncharted territories and inspire it enough to dig into the world of cinema to find out other potent narrative structures that it can borrow to make engaging and powerful films. One only hopes, the sequel, ‘District 10’ which like the alien is arriving in 3 years, would do so as well.

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