Unanswered Questions in District 9

19 August 2009 at 18:21 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

This past weekend, District 9 opened to rave reviews and the highest box office earnings of the weekend. While in many ways the film exhibits the classic markings of a big-budget science fiction adventure, reviewers contrasted it explicitly and implicitly with the mind-numbingly silly Transformers 2 and G. I. Joes with comments like, “It’s nice to see a movie where some serious thought has been put into reviving a stale genre” (from Peter Howell of The Toronto Star), and “If you’re looking for the late-summer special-effects action fantasy with big franchise potential, forget about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. . . . . Instead, proceed directly to District 9” (from Richard Corliss of TIME Magazine). Clearly, if you review movies for a living, District 9 stands out from the pack.

The poster for District 9.  Taken from filmmisery.com.

The poster for District 9. Taken from filmmisery.com.

Unfortunately, the movie may not be as smart as it thinks it is. While I felt the film was well-made and entertaining, the plot’s twists and turns felt contrived at times. Various details challenged my willing suspension of disbelief, and I left the screening with so many questions, I couldn’t help but feel a bit dissatisfied. With that in mind, I list my questions below:

1) Why did the prawns land on earth in the first place?

2) Why are the Nigerians permitted to openly exploit the prawns?

3) Why does the jet fuel for Christopher’s ship cause Wikus to become a prawn?

4) With such heavy artillery and great physical strength, why don’t the prawns rise up against the humans?

5) Why is the alien character named “Christopher Thompson,” rather than some kind of alien name?

A bigger concern about the film: why are the injustices against the prawns told primarily through the view of humans? I understand the effect: the pseudo-documentary style frames the events from the human perspective so that when later scenes render certain prawns sympathetic, they jarringly undermine the audience’s prejudices. But ultimately, I felt the film never fully overturned the initial assumptions of the human characters. The prawns remain hapless and mysterious, and while I sympathized with them, I never felt fully engaged with their plight.

A prawn from District 9.

A "prawn" from District 9.

Of course, a sequel could answer these questions, and I would encourage writer/director Neill Blomkamp to focus the next chapter of this story around Christopher rather than Wikus. While Wikus may be easier to identify with on a cosmetic level, Christopher proves to be the more compelling character. A view into his story would also bring the apartheid themes (pushed oddly to the background, as Daniel Engbar points out in his Slate.com piece) to the forefront. Hopefully in a few summers, we’ll be getting the progressive allegory that the film’s trailers advertised but didn’t quite deliver.

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5 Comments

  1. John Harmon said,

    I thought I would try to give answers to your questions, based on my viewing of the movie.

    1) From what I gathered from the movie, they didn’t so much land on Earth as they had to “pull over to the curb” so to speak. When the humans find the prawns, they are malnourished and were obviously trapped in the ship. Something was wrong with it and it took over 20 years for them to fix it.

    2) I don’t think they were. As they said in the movie though, District 9 had become a slum, and the first rule of any slum neighborhood is that cops don’t go there. And since this is South Africa, you don’t have wannabe gangster teenagers walking around, you have fully decked out, automatic rifle carrying, gouge your eye out with a twig gangsters running around. That, and the government probably just wanted to give the aliens the least amount of legal rights the public would permit. Once they gave them that, they probably just stopped caring.

    3) You got me there…unless the fuel was comprised, at least slightly, of Prawn DNA. Everything about the Prawn technology involved their own DNA to help operate it…maybe that includes the fuel for their ships, and then, naturally, when it comes into contact with humans itturnsthemintoprawns???? I guess…that’s all I got on that though.

    4) There were only, what, a couple million Prawns? And almost 7 billion humans? That, and if you happen to be on an interstellar space ship that breaks down while you’re orbiting the closest planet with intelligent life, you generally go by the “When in Rome” rule. They break down on a planet full of creatures they know nothing about, and since they were obviously in desperate need of help they kinda just wanted to play along. Don’t piss them off, so to speak. And while they were weak, that’s probably when their weapons were taken from them, so they had no defense. Plus, CATFOOD!!!

    5) Just a nitpick, but his name was Christopher Johnson. And to explain, it wasn’t his given name (Back on Prawn Planet or whatever it’s called), that was the name the government gave him. To make an analogy, think about when the imigrants first came to America, and as soon as they passed the Statue of Liberty, they were given new names to help them “be Americans” I guess. Same concept here. Sure, after 20 + years of coexistence the humans and Prawns can understand each others’ languages, but there’s no way in Hell I can pronounce “Click click click Clok Pop click bop click” <—–Paraphrasing. So let's just call you Bob, shall we?

    Hope this helps. I really loved the documentary-style feel of the movie. I think many of the plot holes "why did they land on Earth, how did he turn into a Prawn, etc." are really good questions, but the fact that the movie was made to look like a human-made documentary means that…well, the humans just didn't know. So maybe if there is a sequel we'll see (And maybe Christopher will return to help Wikus).

    I'd like to see a sequel to see these things explained, but on the same token, I kinda don't want a sequel, because the movie is just so perfect as is.

    • c8ic8 said,

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the response! I didn’t necessarily think the ambiquity of the film was a negative thing, but I appreciate you taking a stab at the questions. A few clarifications below:

      1) I understood that the prawns had to stop off for some reason on earth. I just wondered why the prawns were traveling so far from their home planet. I suspect that they were “refugees” of sorts (based on the details you mention) but the film never really delves into the backstory of the prawns (i.e. their previous civilization, etc.). Again, I think a sequel (prequel) could dive into this story with some interesting results.

      2) It makes sense to me that there is criminal activity happening in District 9; what made less sense to me was why it occurred so flagrantly. I honestly think that the reason they portray the Nigerians as so blatantly criminal has more to do with the documentary style (i.e. it’s more believable that a documentary crew could capture the action) than anything else. In general, I felt that the Nigerians really offered little to the film except a convenient distraction for the police during the final climax.

      3) Pretty good conjecture on your part–I wondered if somehow this had something to do with it. Still, you’d have to argue that this DNA is so powerful it has the ability to transform everyone who comes into contact with it.

      4) You make a good point about the “when in Rome” thing, but I would have at least liked some sort of nod to the reasoning on the Prawns’ part. Again, this is a product of the documentary style, which though compelling really limits the ability to identify with the prawns.

      5) Ditto.

      Again, thanks for your comments! It’s always interesting to see another person’s take!

  2. Oscar Nominees Round-Up « Dark Room said,

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  3. Charles said,

    This is a late reply to the movie but better late then never.

    Chris Johnson is called that because that very well may be his name. I’d imagine the scenario like this:

    A species in the galaxy comes into contact with a liquid that transforms them. They behave differently. The contact acts as a viral infection that recruits this species for another intelligence’s use or as a result of genetic engineering. Also the liquid isn’t fuel, more of a conductive component for their DNA interface.

    The transformed species is provided weaponry and to carry out orders as part of the drone mentality. They’re engineered to come to earth and conquer. At some point those in charge of the ship are incapacitated or revolted against. This leaves the ship without intelligent control as it drifts to it’s destination. The opening of the movie begins in 1981. The movie itself presents itself as modern times – 2009. This isn’t 20 years as Christopher has claimed to try to find sufficient liquid in 20 years time.

    Probably by sometime in 1989 Christopher Johnson, a human recruited with an agency or intelligence backing was transformed like Wikus for the purpose of reactivating the ship for an unknown purpose. But also he claims sympathy for “his people” but I wonder if he isn’t speaking of prawns. Maybe he’s talking about prawn’s original species before they were transformed by contact (with the liquid). That would explain leaving Earth with the prawns behind to go “help his people” somewhat.

  4. Bronx said,

    He may have changed his name to chris as do many immigrants do from countrys to help fit in I don’t think he was human once because he knows whats on the ship I think he maybe a scientist and his friend he also had a son I just wondered how they got all those weapons down when they act dumb

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