District 9 verdict: good, uneven, nausea-inducing, more than a little racist. Here’s what we’ve learned from the film. Spoilers follow the jump, but not many.
1. Aliens are not malevolent. They’ll react to provocation and poverty but ultimately want to be left alone and captain their own destinies. We can agree on that.
2. Nigerians, however, are psychotic savages motivated by superstition, greed and avarice. It’s not really accurate to say that the (mostly) white South Africans are portrayed as blemishless. After all, they’re oppressing and ultimately exterminating the Prawns in pursuit of lucrative military technology. But they’re treated as, well, civilized, even as they act monstrously. The Nigerians in District 9 act without logic and proportion and use violence and voodoo as a first recourse. You could tell the morality play of District 9 entirely without them, and so their inclusion just emphasizes the way in which white anxiety is the engine of the movie.
3. Any young alien, even in conditions of dire poverty and looming extermination, can grow up to be Iron Prawn.
4. The Magic Negro has officially been replaced by the Magic Prawn, in the form of Christopher. The selflessness he exhibits is completely unwarranted by the objective circumstances he faces. Of all of the things that kept me from suspending disbelief in this utterly fantastical movie, that was the largest obstacle.
5. It surprised me to read that District 9 isn’t actually based on a video game. The narrative doesn’t arc so much as it advances like the levels of a video game, as the main characters gain both understanding and power as the scenes develop and in some cases literally elevate after facing ever-greater danger. My friend Peter Suderman has a theory — I’m not sure if he’s developed it in writing yet, so forgive me, Peter, if you haven’t — that we’re at the dawn of maturity for video-game films much as 2000 was the dawn of maturity for comic-book films. (Viewers around 40 years old have grown up with video games; viewers younger than 20 have grown up with video games being increasingly cinematic, making the differences between video games and cinema ultimately marginal.) If he’s right, and I think there’s something to the theory, then District 9 is a bit of a narrative harbinger. Maybe we’ve progressed rapidly enough as a culture for the first wave of "real" video-game films to subvert the formula from the outset, like if Watchmen were made in 2000.