The most dramatic moment in subsequent European-Native American relations was the encounter between the Inca emperor Atahuallpa and the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro at the Peruvian highland town of Cajamarca on November 16, 1532. Atahuallpa was absolute monarch of the largest and most advanced state in the New World, while Pizarro represented the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also known as King Charles I of Spain), monarch of the most powerful state in Europe. Pizarro, leading a ragtag group of 168 Spanish soldiers, was in unfamiliar terrain, ignorant of the local inhabitants, completely out of touch with the nearest Spaniards (1,000 miles to the north in Panama) and far beyond the reach of timely reinforcements. Atahuallpa was in the middle of his own empire of millions of subjects and immediately surrounded by his army of 80,000 soldiers, recently victorious in a war with other Indians. Nevertheless, Pizarro captured Atahuallpa within a few minutes after the two leaders first set eyes on each other. Pizarro proceeded to hold his prisoner for eight months, while extracting history’s largest ransom in return for a promise to free him. After the ransom–enough gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide to a height of over 8 feet–was delivered, Pizarro reneged on his promise and executed Atahuallpa. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (67-68)
I really wasn’t sure if I should write about 2009’s District 9. I just wasn’t sure if it qualified as horror. I’m glad that I sat down and watched it, though, because I found it to be an engaging and creepy movie. Besides, sometimes we rely too much on labels. I love sci-fi and I love horror and sometimes they mix, like delicious Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
The movie is a mixture of standard narrative, documentary talking heads, and found footage. It explains how in 1982, a spaceship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa.
An investigative team opens the ship after three months of no visible activity from within. The aliens inside are found to be sick and malnourished. They’re taken out and fed and healed. After awhile, though, the presence of the aliens begins to seem like an imposition. They’re eventually taken and ghettoized in District 9, an area based on the infamous Distric 6 of Cape Town. The movie focuses on the present when the private military corporation, Multinational United (MNU), tries to relocate the alien inhabitants to a new area, District 10.
Dorky everyman Wikus (Sharito Copley), a manager at MNU, is placed in charge of evicting the residents of District 9.
In the course of the eviction, Wikus is sprayed with an alien goo and starts to become one of the aliens–derogatorily refered to as “prawns.” From there, Wikus’ life is in danger. An alien-human hybrid could offer the opportunity to unlock the aliens’ technology, which only responds to alien DNA. MNU is tasked with vivisecting Wikus but Wikus escapes.
I posted the quote that I opened this post with from one of my favorite books, Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, because the plot of District 9 reminded me of the first contact between Pizarro and the Incas. The aliens are outnumbered but have vastly superior technology to humans. Plus, they would have the advantage that most invaders have when making first contact–unfamiliar germs. Pizarro was able to conquer the Incas partially because the population had already been ravaged by smallpox. So why are the aliens subjugated, when, logically they should have been the conquerors? I actually like that the filmmakers took what could have been an alien conquest film and made it into something different. The aliens are truly like the Incans, despite their superior size and weapons. Here’s a picture so you can get a sense of proportion.
Mostly, the humans are interested in harvesting the aliens’ technology. Wikus is a cog in this machinery until his transformation. At the beginning of the movie, Wikus is callous and treats the aliens poorly. Throughout the course of his transformation, Wikus receives aid from an alien renamed “Christopher Johnson” (Played by Jason Cope.) Wikus begins to see the aliens as creatures like humans, that are aware and have feelings, when he sees Johnson interact with his child.
WHat I liked is that the movie had people of multiple races exhibit prejudice towards the aliens. What I disliked about the movie was the portrayal of the Nigerian arms-dealers who lived within District 9. Obesandjo (Eugene Khumbaniya), the leader of the Nigerians, believes that eating the aliens will give him the power to unlock their weapons. His group is universally portrayed as greedy, barbaric, and primitive. It just feels out-of-place in a movie about prejudice to portray another group in such a way. I wouldn’t have been irked by the portrayal if there had been a single positive characteristic displayed, but the Nigerians were cartoonishly negative.
The movie is about prejudice but it also asks the question of what makes a person human. We see Wikus violently transforming into another creature. The aliens aren’t pretty, like the Na’vi, and they’re not cute, like E.T. or Gremlins. As usual, the aliens are bipedal which I kind of hate. This isn’t limited to District 9, it’s a criticism I have of all movies about aliens. I just think that an organism that evolved on a different planet, even one that could harbor life, would be entirely different from anything we could conceive. Maybe they’d be something like sentient silicon crystals or clouds of organic chemicals. Why would they share our body plan? I do like that the aliens are quite grotesque and insectoid. That does make some sense, the arthropod body plan is quite successful and arthropods make up 80% of living animals. If the insectoid body plan is so succesful on earth maybe it could arise on other planets. What I liked about the design of the aliens was that they are alarming to look at but you can see them exhibiting emotions. As the movie progresses, you begin to relate to the aliens, especially Christopher Johnson.
What was very satisfying was watching Wikus’ transformation. It started with small but gross steps like losing his teeth. His fingernails start to fall off, he throws up something awful, his hair falls out in patches, and he ends up with an alien arm. Ironically, as Wikus becomes more alien he shows more compassion for those around him and thus becomes more human.
My main complaint is that Wikus’ attitude change is very quick. His part of the story takes place over 74 hours. Over three days, he goes from bumbling geek to badass.
What I did really like, despite the unrealisticness of the timeline, is that the movie asked what it means to be human. This point is made as Wikus looks more and more inhuman but behaves more in a manner that we consider human. It also makes you take a look at how we treat other intelligent creatures that we share our planet with. Chimpanzees and bonobos, dolphins, and even ants have displayed intelligence. We can’t communicate with them but we see that they can communicate with each other and form societies, but we still subject them to unnecessary suffering. District 9 delivers the gore and is fun to watch, but it also makes you question your place on the planet.
Aside from the movie’s intellectual questions, it’s just really nice to look at. I love the alien ship because it’s so grungy and looks very steampunk. It looks like a machine that’s been used. The aliens themselves look amazing and actually sound very creepy. The guns aren’t sleek and futuristic looking, they just look strange. I also liked the alien mecha. The mecha was originally built for the Nigerian warlords but Wikus is able to use it once he starts to change.
I think that I may have found the machine that can beat Quaritch’s AMP.
District 9 exemplifies the reason that I love horror and sci-fi. Sometimes people tease me for enjoying genre movies but I think a movie like District 9 can be fun to watch but also make you think of deep questions and can connect to other bodies of work. That’s more than you can say about something that’s mainstream and so reduced of tough questions that it is bland and inoffensive.