What if aliens come to Earth and we end up treating them as shabbily as we treat members of our own species?
Both Alien Nation and District 9 use aliens as metaphors for socially-conflicted minority groups. With Alien Nation, the Newcomers are a vague avatar for homosexuals, blacks, and women. In District 9, the prawns most definitely represent the oppressed Apartheid-era Africans as well as the growing number of refugees in third world countries (i.e. Darfur).
A good film, however, can’t be primarily metaphor. It also needs to be, well, a good movie.
So, today, we throw these socially-conscientious sci-fi flicks against one another to see not just which one U2’s Bono would most likely write a title song for, but which one is actually a film worth seeing.
District 9 is actually a feature-length version of director Neill Blomkamp’s short film, Alive in Joburg. His first feature directing gig, Blomkamp retains the premise of his short film — that of alien refugees trapped on Earth, enduring oppressive Apartheid-like conditions — and sparks a fire by introducing Wikus van der Merwe, a multi-national security force representative tasked with relocating the “prawns” from the slums of District 9 to the more isolated District 10.
During the eviction process, Merwe ingests a substance that begins to alter his biological make-up, transforming him into one of the very prawns he’s been sent to relocate. It doesn’t stop there — you see, due to his new hybrid status, Merwe can help governments operate the DNA-locked machinery of the aliens, and must now flee for his life in order to find a cure for his rapidly progressing mutation.
The Defending Champion
The action in Alien Nation takes place a few years after nearly a quarter-of-a-million members of an alien race named the Newcomers crash land on Earth. They’re not just lost, they’ve been created by genetic engineering to be especially good slaves: intelligent, powerful and able to adapt to situations as they occur. In this case, the adaptation is to integrate themselves into American society, most notably, Los Angeles. (If you’re an illegal alien, where else?)
The story gets told through the filter of the familiar buddy cop film where two mismatched partners start out as huge pains to each other but, as the film continues, they come to respect the other and become friends. In this case, the human partner is detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan), a cop who lost his previous partner in a Newcomer hold-up. He agrees to take on a Newcomer partner in order to gain access to the alien culture and solve his partner’s death. That Newcomer partner has been given a human sounding name of, yes, Sam Francisco. It turns into a gritty film story about how a new drug has been manufactured that is targeting Newcomers.
On paper, both of these films have compelling premises, asking whether extra-terrestrial contact is going to be any big deal, or will it simply unleash more “human” behavior of racism, oppression and crime. While you could make an argument that neither film’s premise is more realistic than the other, there’s no doubt that the 21 years that separate them gives the advantage to District 9 in terms of how authentic it feels. Much of it, particularly the beginning, feels like a documentary.
I won’t lie to you. I was way too young when Alien Nation came out to appreciate it and I never saw it in theaters. Seeing it as a DVD on a home screen did not cause it grow in stature. It’s tone is up-and-down, balancing some fairly cheesy comedy with a serious (albeit safe) examination of urban life in America. Its earliest moments, however, have their own power, though. Take the opening scene, where a clearly racist Sykes rambles on about how much he hates Newcomers. As he drives and rants, we see images of Newcomers whoring themselves out, hawking merchandise, and even getting drunk off sour milk. It’s a point well-made.
The Newcomers are inherently human-looking, just with larger heads and lavender freckles. The Prawns, in contrast, are clearly intended to be more alien. The power of Alien Nation at the beginning is how much like us these Newcomers seem to be. The power of District 9 is how different they seem. Yet, in both cases, “The System” has absorbed them much as Ellis Island processed a lot of Europeans into America. It’s not pretty, the first generations get a raw deal but, the hope is, it will all work out when the outside group is assimilated into the inside group.
Both District 9 and Alien Nation embroil their aliens in sexual mischief, black market business, and consumption of odd foods. Cat food or sour milk, take your pick.
The Prawns are flat-out ugly, and their slum habits reinforce it. These clicking and clacking creatures, with oily tentacles and shingled skin, clump around eating raw cow meat, pissing waves of lime-colored urine, and puking up black gook. It’s clear that Blomkompf wanted to tap into our aversion for anything that doesn’t look, smell, act, eat, or screw like we do — and it works. And this is a genius move, since it puts the audience on the side of the locals, who want these aliens relocated outside Johannesburg. Sure, the locals back up their wants with accusations of crime, inherent immorality, and such. But in the end, the locals are just grossed out — and, in a very uncomfortable way, so are we.
The Newcomers, of course, end up being pretty much like us, with a few twists and turns. It has the potential to be just as interesting but the execution fails. Here’s an interesting backstory. The screenplay was written by Rockne O’Bannon who got his script taken from him by James Cameron who came in and re-wrote it, only to leave the project and put O’Bannon back in the business of re-writing James Cameron. While that had to be a high for O’Bannon, you still have to wonder what Alien Nation would have turned out like had Cameron been the auteur behind it.
Here’s the problem. Alien Nation has a story that fails in its nerve, and ends up recycling stale conventions of buddy cop films. There aren’t many surprises here or revelations or truly transcendent moments. District 9, in contrast, dares to be great and mostly is but it gets severely tangled in how it deals with the main character of Wikus van der Merwe, our protagonist who will now experience the film for us. Merwe is quirky and cute and innocent and sweet and also an employee of the ruthless security group which is tasked with relocating the Prawns to District 10. In fact, Merwe’s heading the effort after getting enough brown on his nose to get a promotion.
The first third of District 9 is near genius. It’s probably flawless. The social issue, the clear and subtle audience manipulation, and just the clever premise make for a great cinematic experience. And these are probably the parts of the film most directly lifted from Blomkompf’s short film. However, after Merwe is sprayed with the strange “liquid,” things begin to fall apart as to who exactly Merwe is as a character, and also what exactly this movie’s about.
The film seems to be about culture clash, our aversion to that which is different, and our general indifference to strife. In fact, Blomkompf and Jackson have touted its Apartheid/Darfur overtones. Yet after Merwe is infected and the MNU see him as an opportunity to use the alien weaponry (which can only be used by the aliens), the film transforms into a post-industrial military complex critique with ruthless military men gunning for… well, guns. But like Merwe’s own mutation, this transformation is always half-done, as the film still wants to be about bridging the differences that divide two people and escaping oppression.
So, in the end, what started as a great film with great sci-fi and thematic promises, quickly descends into an inconsistent jumble of character and theme with a really cool (and it is pretty cool) action set piece at the end that lacks resonance and emotion. It may seem odd to say this, but the film just seems unaware of itself both narratively and thematically. Just take the ending, where the alien mothership leaves WITHOUT the refugees — who are then promptly transported to District 10, which Merwe described as a concentration camp.
Did I just watch a two-hour movie so that it could set up “District 10,” where Johnson returns with his alien brethren and stage a break-out of District 10?
It looks like it. Alien Nation also had quite a life after its feature debut. The next year it became a TV series on Fox for a full-season, then it went on to produce nearly a half-dozen TV movie versions.
On a technical level — and just as a piece of entertainment — District 9 is a great watch. You won’t be bored. 21 years earlier, Alien Nation may have been good enough to make $32-million, but it feels slow and unsurprising based on how we like our sci-fi these days.
The filmmakers of District 9, however, do a great job combining plot elements and moments you didn’t necessarily see coming to create a new stake or question, even if those combinations also undermine character and theme. But you will never be bored and will, in fact, be surprised by some of the plot turns that occur — especially in the third act, where exploding human beings, lightening guns, tractor beams, flying spaceships, mech warriors, and all out war play out in great sci-fi fun. This film also has one of the most clever climax switch-ups I’ve seen in a long while — a moment at which you think the film will end but instead delivers something different. At one moment, Merwe seems on the cusp of victory, taking off in the smaller craft to head to the mother ship — but then he’s shot down. Wait — what? I thought the movie was over? Nope. The filmmaker’s have something else planned, throwing us back to a dark plot line about a local crimelord aching to ascend to be an alien via shamans and magic. It’s really great plotting and structure; the film masters these elements. It feels clean and concise and well-crafted, even if the characters and theme fail to follow suit.
District 9 is ambitious, and yet another entry in the growing genre of serious sci-fi. It’s also a seriously flawed, if well-made, film that doesn’t know what it wants to say or how to best say it. But the aging Alien Nation is simply too cheesy and poorly-crafted to beat this film, and even if it were amazing, I don’t think it could match the structural and technical mastery seen in District 9. It’s a better story and more powerfully told. If you haven’t seen it, you need to get with it ASAP.
MORE FROM BEAU ON DISTRICT 9
But the filmmaker has done too good a job of “alienating” the aliens to make us want these differences to be bridged — or to even care about them. The aliens are disgusting creatures, who show no signs of bettering themselves outside of one, lone prawn named Christopher Johnson. This is why I said that the look of the aliens in District 9 is motivated by both theme and genre — because a great deal of the film plays as horror just as much as sci-fi. As we watch Merwe cough up black bile, scarf down rotted cat food, pluck out his own bloody teeth, and peel back his skin, we aren’t appreciating that “underneath it all, we’re all the same.” No, we’re freggin’ grossed out — it’s horrific. We want it to stop. Screw diversity!
It doesn’t help that the main character’s goal throughout the film is to NOT be one of these creatures, and that desire never abates and is, in fact, endorsed by the film. In fact, Christopher Johnson — the alien that befriends Merwe — promises to help cure Merwe. For a film that seems to be cautioning us to embrace diversity, District 9 spends its entirety exploring how not to embrace it. And it’s not a tragic tale where the character learns by not accepting change. At the film’s end, the filmmakers leave us with the hope that in three years Merwe will be back to his “normal” human self. A bolder choice would’ve been to have Merwe accept his transformation, realizing that in the end he is still the same person. Because he doesn’t do this, the film’s theme vanishes. Not only that, Merwe never truly feels the plight of the prawns since he never accepts being one — a narrative hole not helped by Merwe experiencing military oppression and not social oppression as his transformation escalates. So much for the socially-compassionate look at Apartheid South Africa…
But as a character, Merwe presents a clear problem. Like I said, initially we love this guy. But then as he begins evicting the aliens, Merwe shows a rather unpleasant side. Now, granted, I never felt bad for the aliens being evicted. I never hated Merwe for forcing them out of their homes. I couldn’t — Blomkompf did a good job of making me very pro-human by this point by painting the prawns as irredeemable. However, Merwe scheming to steal away a prawn’s child in order to get him evicted starts to sully his character. Or how about threatening them at gunpoint and not batting an eye as they’re gunned down. The nadir of this is when Merwe aborts a hive of baby prawns, lights them on fire, and then describes — while laughing –the sound of the fire as the “pop-crack of popcorn.”
Hold on…what?! Aren’t I supposed to like this guy? I mean, sure I don’t like the aliens so much, but I at least want my human to be above the corruption in the area — human and prawn.
But wait — maybe I’m not supposed to like him. Maybe when he gets sprayed by this juice, we’re supposed to see his mutation as a sort of penance. But no more than fifteen minutes into his transformation, the filmmakers try to sell a scene where MNU scientists force Merwe to test alien weaponry. They bring out a live prawn for target practice and suddenly Merwe — who no more than twenty minutes earlier was describing prawn abortion as an Orville Redenbacher microwave treat — sobs over having to take this prawn’s life.
And as I said, Merwe as a character simply doesn’t work. He remains inherently selfish and pro-human, only letting Johnson go at the end on the hope that Johnson will return to cure his mutation. Again, the stronger choice would’ve been a clear acceptance of his mutation — not a resignation to it in the face of certain death.
It’s just inconsistent. It slowly unravels the story and showcases other inconsistencies and plot holes. Why was the command ship that navigates the main craft jettisoned at the beginning of the film, only to be reinserted when they wanted to leave? Why do these creatures — who can de-limb a human with a soccer kick — not fight back or revolt? With such superior weaponry (capable of taking down the MNU headquarters as seen), why have the prawns never fought back or just staged a revolt?
The most glaring and annoying inconsistency is that the same “fuel” that powers the ship that promises Merwe and Johnson’s escape, is the same biological substance that somehow produced a mutation in Merwe. Not only that, but this fuel has been collected from dozen of sources around District 9…yet Merwe is the first and only person to have mutated? The best answers we get to any of these questions are vague at best, and leave a rather unsatisfied feeling. Sure, I sort of got that the fuel powered the ship and caused the mutation, and that in order to fly the ship it had some sort of biological interface to it…but…hm, just underdeveloped. It feels contrived, and contrivance in sci-fi is just deadly.