District 9: A Look Ahead at the Not-too-distant Past

Dr. Don Donderi, a retired associate professor in the Department of Psychology, reviews this year’s sleeper hit, District 9. A research psychologist who has published many experimental and theoretical papers in the areas of visual perception, memory, and psychological measurement, Dr. Donderi has studied the UFO phenomenon since 1966.

Image from "District 9"

District 9 is an action-packed drama whose theme is man’s inhumanity to aliens. It features a hidden vial of precious liquid, shoot-ups, explosions, car crashes, a giant spacecraft, antiaircraft missiles, a wicked multinational corporation, a transformer-like battle robot, arthropod-like aliens, and one of the human characters undergoes a Jekyll-and-Hyde physical transmutation. District 9 is staged with an integrated South African cast (the everyman hero is an Afrikaner, his second-in-command a black South African), and it is set largely in a shantytown bordering downtown Johannesburg. The formula is part documentary and part TV commentary and the rest is you-are-there realism; particularly the shoot-em-up part with sweaty, bearded, bald, bad mercenaries firing out of helicopters and armored cars, kicking down doors and fighting Nigerian gangsters, the giant transformer battle robot and the aliens all at the same time. Who could ask for anything more?

Now for a quick review of the cultural setting, without giving too much away. Remember apartheid? The everyman hero of this movie is Wikus van de Merwe, who happens to be married to the boss’ pretty daughter. The boss is an executive at a military multinational that has been hired by the South African government to deal with an annoying long-term problem. A huge spacecraft has been sitting, suspended and motionless, just a few hundred feet over Johannesburg, for years. It was full of sick and malnourished aliens who were eventually helicoptered to safety and now live in a segregated shantytown called “District 9.” Apartheid is the law for aliens: there is no fraternizing, no loitering, restricted zones for humans only, etc, and only human riffraff, including Nigerian gangsters, enter District 9 and deal directly with the aliens. Years later, the population of District 9 has grown so large as to become a nuisance, and human South Africans of every race and color are rioting to have the alien “prawns” as they are called (because that is what they look like) moved further away from town.

Image from "District 9"

The boss puts Wikus in charge. Move the “prawns,” he is told, but do it with the trappings of legality and do it so the international do-gooders stay off our backs. Wikus is pleased as punch with his new assignment, and starts out to do his best, but things go downhill from there. The rest of the movie describes the “downhill” with documentary commentary, TV-realism, explosions and other loud noises, the expenditure of many rounds of assault rifle ammunition and the use of large-scale special effects, all leavened with a certain amount of bathos. At the end of a little more than one and three-quarters hours (again without giving too much away) the movie allows us to anticipate a transformation in the aliens’ status, but in ways that are only hinted at. As the last scene unfolds we see how this experience has made Wikus into a new man. The rest is too exciting to spoil; you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Image from "District 9"

You are also invited to experience my more realistic assessment of the interface between humans and extra-terrestrials, without loud noises or special effects, in a Freaky Fridays lecture series called UFOs and Close Encounters that begins on January 15, 2010 and then continues on every second Friday through February 26 in the Redpath Museum at 4 PM. Each lecture will be followed by a UFO-themed movie. Unlike the South Africans in “District 9”, we don’t segregate, so aliens are also welcome.

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Photos courtesy of TriStar Pictures.

One response to “District 9: A Look Ahead at the Not-too-distant Past”

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