In 2009, several friends recommended that I see District 9, a new film produced by Peter Jackson and directed by the hitherto unknown Neill Blomkamp. They knew that since I was something of a missionary for cyberpunk and avant–pop texts, I would appreciate this film, an unlikely export from South Africa that had quickly attracted a cult following. They were right. Blomkamp's ideas and shocking images immediately reminded me of Shinya Tsukamoto's cyberpunk Tetsuo films (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, 1988, and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, 1992) which had inspired me to write my first book, Full Metal Apache (2006). However, after seeing District 9 again, I realized that my first reading was a bit one–dimensional, and I became convinced that this cult film offered significant insight not only into the history of sf film, but also the cultural history—and contributions—of sf itself. At first glance, and like many other films with a cult reputation, District 9 seems very cheaply done, a seemingly slight, even offhand work. However, that simple low–budget appearance masks an incredible narrative complexity and challenging cultural commentary. This essay explores how that combination of simplicity and complexity has helped to make District 9 a contemporary cult classic.
District 9 Revisited
The central concept of District 9 is relatively familiar. Certainly, it recalls the traditional “invaders from space” narrative, as one day the inhabitants of Johannesburg, South Africa, find hovering overhead a huge UFO, inhabited by crustacean–like aliens that the South Africans nickname “prawns.” Fans of sf might well suppose that they are either superior invaders, as in Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (1996), or god–like supervisors of human affairs, much like the Overlords Arthur C. Clarke describes in his novel Childhood's End (1953), advanced beings who will help us evolve from humans into a higher form and solve our problems. However, Blomkamp twists Clarke's canonical formula for such “Imperialist” sf narratives, a formula that redefines humans as a kind of cattle who have been domesticated and overseen by superior aliens since the dawn of human time. He creates a situation in which it is not the human beings on Earth but the aliens from outer space who need help.
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