The Metamorphosis of Empathy: DISTRICT-9

By William Benker

District 9 – 2009 – dir. Neill Blomkamp

District 9 holds a steady hand in the evolution of the “mockumentary” genre, with Neill Blomkamp at the helm.  The film depicts a harsh contemporary allusion to present segregation, racism and corporate power, but its inherent thread follows bumbling protagonist Wickus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who (both figurative and literally) transforms into the desperate anti-hero over the course of the film.  At first glance, it appears as though Wickus is a humanist, or a man of lesser evil.  That is, until his job goes from bad to worse, with the bulk of his character’s complexity presented within the first hour.  But the genius is found not in the mirrored reflection of today’s society (or South Africa’s Apartheid), but rather the extreme transformation of District 9’s protagonist, where the audience discovers empathy on a far greater level than where they began.

A variety of mediums serve to contextualize the controversial situation on which the film centers (the arrival of the alien ship above the run down city of Johannesburg).  In true mockumentary form, (mock) historians and sociologists feed viewers exposition, each providing their own speculations regarding District 9.  The Prawns (a derogatory name for the alien species) are being evicted from their current land to a more secure location (concentration camps) funded by the government.  Wickus attempts to reason with the Prawns, who we learn  (through subtitles) have little understanding of the concept of eviction.  Only when a particularly “sharp” Prawn “Christopher,” understands his legal rights, and presents a counter-argument to the unlawful procedure does the plot really take off.

This post-modern Jurassic Park doesn’t stop there.  MNU, the company in charge of the eviction, has other goals in mind.  While the Prawns have become a problem alongside inter-gang warfare of the slums, they also harbor a vast array of highly advanced technical weapons.  The problem: only Prawn’s can fire them, leaving the company with nothing to launch financial success.  That is, until Wickus gains the ability to fire them, (without giving too much away) transforming him into a highly valuable necessity to the evil Biological/Weapons Corporation.  The most horrific action you’ll find is at the hands of the cold corporate scientists, who maliciously attempt to harvest all they can from Wickus – if they can catch him.

No corrupt facet of society is left out of this brutal sci-fi statement.  While the media provides commentary inside and outside Wickus’ situation, the term “terrorist” garners new light from the victim’s perspective.  The mockumentary turns action-film, following Wickus’ grisly transformation.  The special effects are exceptionally well placed, particularly with the Prawns themselves.  These creatures bear similar resemblance to both human and insect, allowing viewers to engage in understanding rather than distraction by their appearance.  The last half of the film shifts into a climax that (though slightly dragging) provides plenty of explosions, rapid gunfire and relentless killing of both aliens and humans.  However, it’s safe to assume who does most of the killing: the humans.  District 9’s locations are well contained and unfortunately, not too difficult to imagine; the film was shot on location in the impoverished suburbs of Johannesburg.  While the story teeters throughout the second act, Blomkamp’s well-developed special effects carry various ongoing shootouts. The action paints a gory picture of the inner-district warfare.

The film’s surprisingly low budget (allowing careful concentration on effects) is something of a toss-up.  Extras in the South African district were paid a fair wage for each day’s work (better than fair, actually, compared to their usual standards) that leaves the film open to a broader interpretation of the film industry in general.  Still, Blomkamp’s vision of grit is well delivered.  But what isn’t said in regard to the Prawns’ segregation is supportive to the film’s integrity.  Never do we find out why the Prawns came to Earth.  In the little knowledge we attain from the Prawns themselves, we find one ruling theme of the film is inherently within miscommunication.  While humans bare some understanding of the Prawns’ foreign language, the Prawns are never seen rationally conversing with the human race.  Only through Wickus and the intelligent “Christopher” (Prawn) does the audience see a shift in understanding between the two species, and only through a common goal do they find reason.

Certainly the definitive polarization of District 9 provides a natural perspective for the viewers’ loyalty, (empathizing with the Prawns for obvious reason), but it’s only through Wickus that their empathy is allowed to grow.  While Wickus drives the narrative in a desperate attempt for self-resolution (ostracized and hunted by his own human society), it is only after an ill-fated attempt at escape that he learns he must sacrifice his own cause for another’s.  There the magic lays, for the compassion lost in Wickus is resurrected in the film’s ultimate conclusion.  Blomkamp goes beyond the usual compassion for the anti-hero Wickus and reaches further into the examination of the innate understanding of the Prawn protagonist, “Christopher”, and his alien child.  Therefore the audience is allowed an engaging look at their own compassion from a definitive stance between right and wrong, to a more complex understanding of the alien race, both figuratively and literally.

Andrea O Written by: