Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

I approve of District 9 (UPDATED, Spoilers)

It hurt, but in a good way. That is all.

~

UPDATE: A friend of mine posted a link to A.O. Scott’s review of the movie at the NYT, flagging it by saying “I thought this was great. But it’s not for the queasy.” What follows is the debate that ensued:

DM: Really? I thought that the political statements of the first 30 minutes were entirely undermined by the action film tacked on to the final hour – to spend so much time “humanizing” aliens, only to turn around and de-humanize any humans who oppose the moral position taken by the screenplay, by gratuitously blowing them up in an orgy of video game violence, kind of entirely missed the point.

Not to mention that whole thing about “they’re workers, so they’re aimless and not used to thinking about themselves.”

And my entire life, I have been terrified that a movie would come along where someone’s finger nails would start falling off, so this one pretty much made me lose my mind.

JH: Political statements aside, the mark of a good horror/suspense movie is sometimes that it makes you want to cheer for the “wrong” side (e.g. Wikus as he mows down the MNU in his Transformers suit, or Hannibal Lecter). There’s a dissonance in that cheering that makes you think about bigger questions.

I liked the movie primarily as entertainment. I also liked the uncertainty of the ending.

Me: Elaborate on your problem with the “they’re workers…” thing. I thought it was a cool move actually. They were the vulnerable lower echelon of a hierarchical society whose “protectors” had been eliminated. They were vulnerable specifically to exploitation at the hands of MNU.

The thing is that just because people don’t think for themselves doesn‘t mean that they can’t. What’s cool about the move is that it keeps the alien society from being considered utopian or necessarily good, despite the ideals of Christopher (whatever his last name is). It suggests that the society was no less disempowering to those at its base than human society is. And this ambiguity about the goodness of prawn society is amplified by the ambiguous ending.

DM: But the film suggests that that the disempowerment of the workers is part of their nature – that certain of the aliens are meant to be leaders, and certain of them are meant to be “shiftless” and lazy. Furthermore, it then only takes the time to “humanize” the leaders, the ones who have a family structure to which we relate, and are there to save all the others from their misery. Even right to the end, the workers are portrayed as savages who only defend Wikus (in an absolutely disgusting way) only because he is one of their own.

Essentially, if you want to carry the race allegory through to this aspect of the film, the film only attempts to make us relate to the “Cosbys/Obamas” of the aliens. Wikus, and by extension the audience, only comes to understand and empathize with individidual aliens if they exhibit characteristics that we consider to be “human”. The film never attempts the far braver – and ultimately necessary – step of making us accept the aliens qua aliens.

Me: I think your reaction is one that was fully intentional on the part of the film makers. You’re falling into the same thinking as the people in the “man on the street” interviews, defining what prawns “are” or “are not.” There is nothing, if you think of it, that says decisively that the “workers” are essentially inadequate compared with the ruling class. Just as likely, and far more consistent with the ideology of the film is that they are the product of entrenched social pressures that do render them unrelateable, quasi-barbaric, and completely ill equipped to help themselves. So we get the idealist Barack Obama prawn who goes home to wrangle up a rescue… but does he possibly not come back because his society deems those left behind unworthy of saving? Their being mere workers after all…

How would they make us accept the aliens qua aliens? How do you know what is “qua alien”? And how does that not lock the exploited aliens into a definition that perpetuates their exploitation?

PS – I was assuming that Christopher (whatever) had been in the command module when it fell. Hence his being of the ruling class. They didn’t say they rebuilt the module from scratch did they?

DM: I think that you are overestimating the filmmakers. I really don’t think that they thought through the implications of most of what they put on screen, and that your interpretation (although mostly preferable from a moral perspective) is not really something that they ever put their minds to. I think that you’re bending over backwards to save this movie – which was, by the way, made by a 29 year old special effects expert who was supposed to be directing the Halo movie.

And I do have a basic problem with something in your interpretation – that individuals who we perceive to be “unrelateable, quiasi-barbaric, and completely ill-equipped to help themselves” need some sort of saving from their own exploitation. And I think that this problem fits right in with my “aliens qua aliens” critique. You seem to want to project your own – and possibly “human” – values onto the alien society. Your vision seems to contemplate the aliens being relateable only once they have been “elevated” to display characteristics that we understand and think of as important. While I share your aim of liberating the oppressed from exploitation, I think that will only come from a communicative process that allows us to understand and appreciate the “aliens” for what they are, and give them the capacity for self-determination. I think that by only allowing Wikus (and the audience) to relate to the aliens who might be considered to be most like “us,” the movie sends entirely the wrong message about how reconciliation can be achieved.

Me: Re: “he’s only a special effects guy.” Einstein was only a clerk at a patent office. Elitist. Re: “he’s only 29.” He’s no Orson Welles, but Orson Welles was only 26 when CK came out. Anyway, it’s pretty crappy to assume that because he’s young and does special effects, that he doesn’t have a well philosophically realized vision. Especially since the vision is consistent with the short film the movie is based on, which Blomkamp made 5 years ago (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNReejO7Zu8).

To respond to your substantive concern, your recourse is honestly to the Asian values argument?? The implication of that argument is liberal quietism at its worse. The fact is that these are communicating and reasoning beings who are inextricably (by the time District 9 unfolds) tied into a socio-cultural system of exploitation that has effectively rendered both the aliens and the humans that are most closely implicated with them completely different from anything they might have been.

By the same token, do you think that the solution to the social problems among aboriginals in Canada would be best rectified by Canadian society generally accepting what the aboriginals were before European colonization? And tell me, what is essentially aboriginal qua aboriginal, or black qua black? I’m still very curious.

To go back to my first point (about Einstein or whatever), you get into the film industry how you /can/ get into the film industry (case in point MP)…

DM: 1. I’m not assuming that the movie isn’t philosophically well-realized because of the director’s age. My impression from the film itself, minus my knowledge of the director, was that it was not well thought out at best, and offensive at worst. I invoke Blomkampp’s youth and lack of experience (along with the overall tenor of the film) to strengthen my argument that the movie lacked the subtlety that your interpretation holds was present. If that subtlety was not present, I think that my interpretation is probably closer to the truth.

2. Whatever is essentially “x qua x” is what a community fully equipped with the tools for self-determination chooses to make of itself. And what that community chooses to make of itself is entitled to a certain level of deference (within certain limits, the definition of which is the difficult part).

3. Don’t personalize this argument by bringing MP into it. Of course anyone can make a brilliant film – but I don’t go out of my way to find brilliance where all I see are failed political statements and action scenes lacking restraint and ripped off from better sci-fi films.

Me: My issue with the film was more that it was too stringently ideological than that it was philosophically scattershot. The reason why I tend towards the interpretation I do is that that is what the Marxism that is so blatantly at the core of the commentary would call for. It falls down for using shorthands that seem pretty obvious for people that have drunk the same koolaid, but that are not intuitive if you’ve not.

Re 2: Rawls had a big impact on you eh? Putting that aside, the prawn community was subjected to 20 years of having the “tools” for its self definition stripped by a dominating system. I think it’s uncontroversial that they deserve whatever help can be given to them to free them from being subject to inhumane medical experimentation, and being stuck in concentration camps.

3: Why not? In our “community,” MP is a reference point I know we can both agree on. And your eviscerating exclamation point still seems unfounded to me. I liked the action scenes.

DM: Yeah … I was wondering if you’d spot the debt to Rawls (but don’t underestimate the Hobbes and Shivji that’s also there). And on your response to point 2 – I agree, but I don’t think that the movie approved of self-determination. I think that it saw the ultimate goal for an alien as being the sort of being to which humans can most relate.

I was actually entirely sickened and often bored by the action scenes. I never want to see a human being vaporized again.

Me: I don’t know Shivji. Is that the same as Shivaji? (who I found on wiki and am no more familiar with except for the wiki entry). I think the film can’t be faulted for not focusing on self-determination. Its core theme was structural domination. That said I don’t think that it was inconsistent with the the ideal of autonomy at all. I also still think that the perspective you’re advancing over-privileges difference over what is or what could be shared and built among communicating and intelligent peoples. It idealizes a world of cloisters based on essential traits. We don’t live in a world of cloisters and nor do I think that a world of cloisters is in any way ideal.

DM: Alright, I need to get to work on other things. Let’s call it a day with this debate.

Me:

JH: Very interesting, you two. Btw Wikus is totally cute.

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