Imagine you are the chief of a small, relatively peaceful, ancient tribe. You have not yet discovered many things that a modern child would know (for instance, that the earth is round and rotates on its axis and around the sun), but you are highly inquisitive and intend to figure out the world around you as best you can. Not out of idle curiosity so much as out of necessity for the survival of your tribe. The more you learn, the safer you and your tribe will be.
You are particularly interested in the sky, for several reasons. One is that your tribe, and it appears, all life, is dependent on the sun. When the sun is visible in the sky, the whole world is illuminated and is considerably warmer than when it is not. It is true that at night there is some comfort from the moon and stars, but in general you are much more interested in the sun. You know that the sun is made of fire, because when you build a fire, it too provides light and warmth, although not nearly as much as the sun.
Your tribe also depends on rain, water from the sky. For whatever reason, there is a quality to the sky water that the sea water does not have – unfortunately, the water of the sea, although vast in quantity, is not life-sustaining. You also notice that water in large quantities (that is, the sea) is blue, and so is the sky. You surmise from this that the sky is actually made of water.
Two things puzzle you, however. Water tends to fall to the ground. How is it that the sky is made of water, but the water is not continuously falling to the ground? What is holding all that water up? The other puzzle is that everyone knows that fire and water cannot coexist together. But the sun, which is made is of fire, is in the sky, which is made of water. Again, how is this possible?
You come to a brilliant conclusion that answers both puzzles. There must be an invisible barrier separating the water above and the earth below. The sun, moon, and stars are all moving around, nice and dry, inside that barrier. Occasionally, small holes (you think of them as windows) appear in that barrier, and water falls through them, resulting in rain on the earth. At times, they open wider than others, resulting in harder, possibly dangerous, rain.
But what is keeping the barrier up? You decide that the barrier is actually a giant dome that covers the whole earth. Floating within the ethereal material of the dome are the celestial bodies. Above the dome is immeasurable amounts of water, as big as the sea. It is frightening to imagine that there is this massive amount of water above the whole world, and the only thing keeping it from crashing down on us is the barrier! If the windows in the barrier were to open up completely, there could be a massive flood. On the other hand, the sky is also the source of all life, since it is the source of all potable water.
You continue to ponder the structure of the world. Maybe at one point there was no barrier, and the entire world was filled with water. It’s amazing to think about, but it’s possible. Maybe something built the barrier, drained most of the water off of the earth, revealing dry land below (but leaving some of the water there, which became the sea). The sun, being made of fire, could not have existed yet if the world was filled with water – it would only make sense for the sun to have been put in place after the barrier was created.
You are getting excited. You are slowly but surely figuring out the steps involved in the formation of the world! You have more details to figure out, such as when in this process plants, animals, trees, and most importantly, man came into the picture. Perhaps one day your tribe can explore the edges of the earth and actually find where the dome of the barrier meets the earth. Or even more ambitiously, to build a tower and actually touch the sky! But even without those accomplishments, you’re pretty sure you’re on to something. You are advancing the knowledge of your tribe, and are coming closer to a more accurate explanation of the world and its origins. You had better write this down, for posterity and the sake of the tribe…
I’m writing this because so many of the reviews of this movie don’t seem to get it. But I can’t write this post without spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, SEE IT, and then come back here.
Ok – spoiler time. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that:
a) The “prawns” (the derogatory name that we call the aliens) have vastly better technology, specifically, weapons than us.
b) They are physically strong enough to easily rip a human apart.
c) They basically understand us (although they can’t always predict us).
d) They have a mothership hovering in the air that can fit 1.8 million of them.
e) They are able to build another, smaller ship, again, more advanced than anything we have, by looking through our garbage and seeing what they can use. They are able to do this underground, where we can’t see the new ship.
So why don’t people get that they’re smarter and stronger than us. And because they’re smart, they empathize with us, the way we empathize with animals. They don’t want to hurt us the way we don’t want to hurt animals. They’re actually much more enlightened than us, and value life more, because they are on a higher level. Their brains are more valuable. Each one is more individual from each other than we are from each other, because they’re that much more complex. They have more dimensions to express their individuality, because their thinking is more nuanced. So they value our lives in some ways more than we value our own, and are more reluctant to kill us than we are to kill each other. Again, over the course of the movie becomes clear how pitifully easy it would be for them to wipe us out in a few days. But they choose to let us live. They’re more sensitive and loving than us.
They have a virtually indestructible suit of death that can take out two cars and a dozen marines, and choose not to use it (except the child), even though it’s right there for them. Their rifles can easily demolish our buildings in one shot. These aliens could wipe us out and take over the planet at any time. Easy as pie. But they decide not to, even though they’re capable of anger (and with us killing their babies and threatening their children, they are slowly getting angrier and angrier), and go along with our primitive demands.
Imagine being kidnapped by humans from an ancient hunter-gatherer culture. You have an automatic pistol with you. The primitive humans have no idea what it is, although they realize that it’s probably a weapon. They’ve never seen anything like metal before, so they realize it’s powerful. But they don’t have any clue of the true power your gun has over their wooden spears. But you are a kind person and don’t want to hurt anybody (although they seem shockingly violent). You probably know more about science and technology than they can imagine, although you admit that there’s a lot you don’t know about in the world. But even the technology you do know about and understand would blow their minds. Something as simple as a lighter might freak them out. Or a soda can. You’re also much more civilized (in the sense of non-violent). They are willing to torture you (their primitive weapons, pointy spears, still hurt), but you won’t harm them, even though you are much larger than they are (as modern humans are as compared to primitive humans) and could easily overpower them. You want to teach them what you know. You want to teach them about commerce, electricity, radio waves, medicine, air travel, space travel (they have very primitive view of space, since it’s just “the sky”, and they debate if the sky goes up forever, or if the sky stops, and there’s something on top of the sky), and quantum physics. They have no idea about any of that stuff. You don’t even know where to begin. But they’re very primitive, belligerent, and violent. So you try to learn their strange culture and beliefs as well as you can, keeping your hands up (as they insist) to stay out of trouble, and just go with the flow. You have your gun. So again, while you could kill them at any moment, and reasonably expect to get away, you choose not to, out of higher principles.
You also live much longer than they do. Their average lifespan seems to be about 40, which is sad. They don’t have modern medicine like you do. If you were a doctor, you would have much to teach them. But you’re not. You’re a just a data analyst. Not that they would have any idea what that meant. Imagine the wonder if these primitive people saw a computer, or even a cell phone for the first time! Are they even ready for that? You could show them a battery, and they would have no idea what it meant. How would you even start to explain the technology behind a battery to them? They don’t even know about electricity yet! They have a written language, though. That’s a start. Maybe you can learn their language somehow, and start to teach them in their own language, which is too primitive to express what you have to say, really. You start to feel an affection for these people, even though they are continually treating you with hostility and suspicion. You don’t blame them – they’re so primitive! You understand them, and their crude technology, but they don’t understand you. You’d love to get home and tell your family all about the adventure! And you long for the comforts of modern life (although you’ve learned to adopt to living in their humble wooden tents, which are drafty and require you to sleep on a rag on the floor, as they all do). But these people are keeping you prisoner, and you refuse to kill them in order to make your escape.
So what can you do?
Whatever you think of the primitive culture is what the aliens think of us. They’re much more moral and much less violent than we are. They could easily kill us, but they’d rather teach us – they have so much they could teach us (although our smaller brains could probably not handle most of it), but they wonder if it’s a good idea. Violent as we are, wouldn’t we just use their new technology to kill each other? So the aliens are thinking: “Maybe we could send a few of our scientists there (along with a military escort, of course) and study them later. For now, just get me the hell home! These primitive people are violent and dangerous!”
Now do you get District 9? It’s the sad story of how we make first contact with a superior race, and badly screw it up. We’re not even smart enough to open ourselves up to what they have to offer. And by the end of the movie, we dimly wonder what this creature, who can build an advanced spaceship out of discarded computer parts in his basement, will do next.