Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Fantasy Cinema and Social Critique: The Case of District 9

I recently watched the film District 9 on DVD. (I avoided it in the theater after hearing it was ultra-violent, and I handle that sort of thing better on the small screen.) It actually wasn't all that violent: lots of distant shots of exploding bodies and blood spattering the camera lens in keeping with the film's pseudo-documentary style, but no real gore by your average horror film's standards. As someone who's fascinated by the processes of social alienation that are explored, exposed, and reinforced in fantasy/sci-fi films, though, I found its commentary on the subject intriguing, if a bit inconsistent.

The plot of the film is simple: an alien mother ship filled with nearly two million crustacean/insectoid creatures stalls above Johannesburg, South Africa, and--in a grotesque parody of the apartheid system from which that nation has only recently distanced itself--these newcomers become the victims of prejudice, speciesism, isolation, recrimination, and violence. The derogatory name "prawns" is applied to them; they dwell in slums separated by fences from the human population; crimelords move into their territory, further straining an already fragile social structure; and an unholy alliance of government officials and corporate interests seeks to exploit their advanced technology after permanently resettling them to what one spokesman finally admits are de facto concentration camps. The film's action unfolds from these events, as some of the aliens resist violently, others are slain by private military forces working for the resettlement agency, and the human head of the operation becomes infected by a virus that slowly transforms him into one of the "prawns." His desperate pursuit of a cure, and his uneasy allegiance with the alien revolutionary who promises to deliver one, provide the film some of its most unnerving and uncanny moments.

But they also pull the film away, to a certain extent, from the social commentary I had taken to be its core. To begin with, these events force the film into a violation of its own stylistic principles, as action involving the infected human and his alien ally necessarily takes place in scenes no documentary camera could capture. And this is a not insignificant concession to form, inasmuch as the documentary style was itself, in the film's early movements, the principal vehicle by which it represented the alienation of the "prawns" as a systemic social practice rather than an individualized or isolated instance of intolerance. I'm reminded of the film Iron Man--a far inferior film, by the way, but one that shares District 9's tendency to personalize the political, in the case of the lesser film by retreating from a promising critique of entrenched militarism into an indictment of particular individuals operating outside the licensed military apparatus. Being, as I said, a far better and smarter film, District 9 never goes as far as Iron Man in whitewashing the political structures of inequity it exposes--but by morphing into a kind of alien buddy-movie, it does tend to displace or soften the critique.

At least, that was my impression on an initial viewing; maybe I'll see it differently next time. But I do wonder why it's so hard to sustain political critique in popular media; I'm not fully satisfied with the usual explanations having to do with the corporate allegiances of the culture industry. I wonder whether there's simply something incompatible between cinematic fantasy and social critique. And if so, I wonder whether as a lover of fantasy film, I'm once again looking for social change in the wrong places.

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