‘District 9’ and the Legacy of Highbrow Sci-Fi

By  · Published on November 8th, 2013

All this week, Film School Rejects presents a daily dose of our favorite articles from the archive. Originally published in August 2009, Landon Palmer explores the place of Neill Blomkamp’s breakout film in the great sci-fi conversation… The following in-depth discussion about District 9 may contain spoilers, depending on your definition of a spoiler. You’ve been warned.

As many critics and fans who have sung the praises of Neill Blomkamp’s innovative debut feature have already pointed out, District 9 works simultaneously on multiple levels: at once an original and engaging action drama exhibiting the best entertainment qualities of the science-fiction genre as well as a chilling ongoing commentary about human treatment of those deemed not “like them,” in this case echoing the oppressive politics of apartheid in D9’s South African setting. While no mainstream sci-fi feature has approached the genre quite this way (with the film’s unique documentary realism and portrayal of a fragile alien race), the ability to simultaneously produce a piece of entertainment with insightful and revealing but never preachy social commentary has been par for the course for the best of highbrow science-fiction on the silver screen.

Because of the fantastic and imaginative nature of the genre, sci-fi has been able to get away with providing simultaneous socio-cultural commentary and entertainment value far more successfully than films of other genres. Many dramas deliberately aiming to convey a progressive or revealing social message – think of any film about race relations from Sidney Poitier movies up to Crash, or any war film from Coming Home to Lions for Lambs – even the best ones, often resort to desperate monologuing, a cheap way of transcribing the intended message of the filmmaker onto the very mouth of the character, as if the messages portrayed throughout the rest of the film weren’t strong enough for the filmmaker to trust what exactly the audience takes with them when they leave the theater. This is both disrespectful of audience intelligence – thinking that they won’t “get” the message unless it’s spelled out for them, also thereby leaving little room for alternative interpretations of the movie’s meaning – and also something of an abandonment of the particular utilities of cinematic expression as filmmakers forego the medium’s unique audiovisual storytelling nature in favor of dense written words delivered by an actor as if they were on stage (in other words, such preachy moments often also come across as bland and uncinematic). The great relevant works of science-fiction, however, rarely run into such problems, and thankfully so.

It is the mark of the great piece of art that works on multiple levels, and can be interpreted differently depending on one’s point in life and the circumstances under which they may experience that art; and the simultaneous delivery of entertainment value and social commentary (though because these films often allow audiences to draw their own conclusions, maybe social observation is a more apropos term) works particularly well in sci-fi as it is able to engage both the imaginative and intellectual sides of film spectatorship. A fourteen-year-old, for instance, may view District 9 as a fun venture akin to other summer blockbuster entertainment, while somebody only a few years older, or somebody from a different country or social background, can come away from the same film with a more layered experience. Not only do such films often overtly intend for such a depth of experience to occur (as Blomkamp has made it clear that D9 was inspired by his witnessing of the horrors of apartheid as a child), but thoughtful films such as these enable multiple interpretations and emotional reactions coming out, even those that the filmmaker may never have intended, which are just as valid. Such films allow the very possibility of absolutely nobody coming out of the theater having seen the exactly the same film.

While sci-fi does deal with the fantastic, it is distinct from fantasy. Where fantasy is often a genre that deals wholly with a fabricated universe in a time and place that has little analogy to, or correlation with, our own (Tolkien, for instance, often defended LOTR as non-allegorical to happenings in Western culture at the time, thus attempting to preserve the timelessness of fantasy), science fiction is usually grounded in some level of reality (where fantasy is timeless, sci-fi is often time-specific). What most science fiction offers is not a radically different view of the world, but one that retains a great deal of familiarity with only slight changes. These changes are often manifested through major leaps and bounds in technology or an encounter with an alien life form. But great science fiction is rarely about the slight but significant differences from the natural world therein, but rather how such change causes humans to act differently amongst each other. Great science fiction doesn’t suggest that these changes bring about major alterations in human behavior, but rather shows how such changes amplify or enable manifestation of certain aspects innate to human nature that had not been previously expressed to such an extent. This is why so much science-fiction is dystopian, showing how changes in technology or man’s relationship with the universe can bring out the very worst in human behavior. Thus, while much of sci-fi takes place in the near future or in a world slightly different than our own, they often speak volumes to the time and place in which they were produced.

Using sci-fi as a means for social commentary has had a noble tradition in literature, from the terrifying portrayals of tyranny and fascism run amok in the works of Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury to the cautionary tales of Philip K. Dick. Probably the first revolutionary use of sci-fi in this manner on the silver screen was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a film that cultural critics like Seigfried Kracauer argued predicted the rise of fascism in Germany. In the US, the tradition of using sci-fi in this manner grew to distinction in the second half of the 1950s and early 60s, when the genre was used as a thinly-veiled allegorical combatant to the McCarthy witch hunts in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and after-the-fact in TV shows like The Twilight Zone.

Because of the strict censorship of the Hays Code under the leadership of Joseph L. Breen, films of the 50s were rarely permitted to overtly comment on relevant social issues like race relations or the red scare, but true artists have always been quicker than the censors, and manage to find subversive ways to get a challenging message across to audiences (such practices were common in art produced in Soviet Russia, like the anti-Stalinist compositions of Shostakovich or the films of Eisenstein), and in McCarthyist America the easiest way to deliver such a message was through the guise of genre. Sci-fi was a particularly effective tool for this effort because at this time it was dismissed as pulp, B-level entertainment, thus the censors didn’t engage with it seriously enough in order to see its underlying message. This, of course, came at the risk of audiences not receiving such a message as well, but the general wisdom followed that such interpretations would come across to spectators keen enough to think about movies seriously. In later sci-fi, pre-Star Wars products of the genre (e.g., Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973)) were critical of modern practice seen as detrimental to both nature and humanity, while 80s sci-fi like James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) aimed to be a response to the terrors of the Vietnam War.

Of course, many culturally relevant readings of these films came across by critics and scholars long after these movies left theaters, thus bringing about the possibility that no such allegories were originally intended by the filmmakers. For instance, the popular reading of Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) and Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) as the cinematic equivalent of the space race, a veritable battle between Apollo and Sputnik taking place on the big screen, is an observation only made possible through the advantage of hindsight. However, this possibility does not render interpreting films in such a way as irrelevant, because films can reflect the culture in which they were made both consciously and unconsciously.

With District 9, however, we have a film that, unlike previous films of the genre, held the overt intention of exploroing multiple levels, and it does so successfully. As Blomkamp intended to portray despicable human practices upon the aliens in a way reflective of South African apartheid, for American audiences the images of alien abuse also bring forth the resonant iconography of immigration controversies as well as violent memories of the Jim Crow South. Through Wilkus van der Merwe’s transformation throughout the film, Blomkamp seems to be stating that humanity isn’t a term exclusive to humans, that similarities between beings aren’t exclusive to race or species. However, the balance between entertainment and commentary can often be rocky and uneven, and while District 9 is most often simultaneously engaging in both respects, its stance as part of the genre often comes at the expense of exploring its fascinating themes any further. And the potential for misinterpretation still exists within the guise of genre, as the evidenced by a couple viewing the film next to me who seemed a little too amused by the struggles of the aliens in D9. Sure, the film is supposed to be amusing, but how does one who disturbingly sees the actions of the aliens as mere silly antics react to the later horrifying image of an innocent alien being assassinated by his species’ own weapon for purely scientific purposes? Delivering a serious message can often be rough terrain when some still view sci-fi as a silly genre.

I’m willing to go with the risk of misinterpretation if it prevents a movie from preaching at me. Allowing audiences to think without telling them what to think is rare these days, and the many conversations that can come away from a movie like District 9 not only attests to the undervalued and underexplored intelligence of most audiences, but evidences the thoughtfulness of the film itself. Like the restrained ending of this summer’s other sci-fi gem Moon (a film that displays a literalized dehumanization of corporate influence), which only hints at rather than overtly states its message, the interpretations that audiences fill in the gaps with can often be far more profound and interesting than any message bluntly stated by the filmmaker.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak