Science-fiction and politics used to be inextricably intertwined, with sci-fi shedding light on contemporary issues through the construction of fantastic, allegorical worlds. Jules Verne poked holes in society with Gulliver’s Travels. Ray Bradbury made a fierce attack on book-burning mentality in Fahrenheit 451. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are so timeless in their politics that one would never think they were written in the first half of the 20th century. And, of course, let’s not forget George Romero’s satirical zombies, social issues raised in Planet of the Apes and “Soylent Green is… PEOPLE!”
Nowadays, sci-fi tends towards disaster movie escapism and special effects. Nowt wrong with that – but District 9 is here to address the balance. District 9 is set in South Africa, in a world where aliens have come to earth in huge numbers but are marginalised and turned into secondary citizens in the way black people had been marginalised and had their intrinsic rights taken away by Apartheid. They’re given nicknames (‘prawns’), they take on the crappy minimal wage jobs if they have jobs at all, they’re force to live in shanty towns and ghettos. The film gives them the status of abused immigrants. Like immigrants, illegal or otherwise, and like slaves, ‘prawns’ are considered by the general public, the media and the governments to be subhuman. A nuisance. An expensive inconvenience. An infestation that genocide would ‘cure’ but with the eyes of the UN and the world watching probably wouldn’t be allowed.
One of the beautifully conceived aspects of this film is its documentary style and handheld camera work. Yes, we’ve seen it in Blair Witch, Cloverfield and [REC], but what all these films have in common is thoughtful use of shaky cam which is in context and adds to the main premise of the film. The documentary style makes the acting almost invisible, and interviews with members of the public (white, black, white collar, blue collar) and their universal contempt of alien immigrants shed a powerful light and segregation issues in society through the medium of entertaining sci-fi.
As one reviewer succinctly put it, who knew that a movie that begins like an Apartheid spin on Brazilian ghetto drama City Of God, then mutates into The Fly, would wind up pushing some emotional buttons in a way reminiscent of ET?
First published here.