District 9

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.


3 Comments on “District 9”

  1. acase says:

    “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.”

    I don’t think they built the ship. It dropped from the mother ship (there was a clip of this), they hid it underground, fixed it up, and prepared it for interstellar travel.

    Didn’t have time to read the rest of your post yet. =)

  2. Isaac says:

    Great posting Dani! Very well thought out. I love the comparison of modern human with prehistoric human.

    I believe you made some incorrect statements and conclusions though.

    1. Most of the “Prawns” were actually very primitive and simple laymen among the aliens. They were probably of the lower working class on their planet (though you seem to assume that they came from a perfect homogeneous classless society). The Prawns responsible for [repairing] the shuttle ship were the scientists of their society. Not just one of the masses. The writers seemed to have taken great pains in illustrating the simple lives of the prawns and their desire to live and let live.

    2. You assume the Prawns were all sophisticated and fine gentlemen but it seems from their landing they were sifting through garbage and seeking to survive by very simple means. They did not send ambassadors to negotiate a better life for them with the humans. (like those in V)

    3. The Prawn civilization accumulated very advanced knowledge and technology but that doesnt mean they were as good at distributing this knowledge to the masses as Humans have in the last century.

    4. The prawns didnt seem to be violent but the movie depicted only a short timespan after they landed. As you said they were getting angrier and probably would rebel soon enough just as Humans have in similar conditions. Furthermore, when humans are in such conditions they begin as powerless victims and only later do they empower themselves out of anger and time to acclimate (Concentration camp uprisings, Warsaw uprisings). It seems the Prawns are behaving the same way. They dont all have weapons and they seem to lack the unification needed for an uprising.

    5. I dont think there is any indication that the Prawns remained non-violent because of some idealism that you mention. One particular Prawn character (the scientist/engineer) does though.

  3. Drew – Good point!

    Isaac – all good points as well.

    I definitely admit that I might be reading too much into the film and the filmmakers’ intentions. But these ideas sparked my imagination enough to want to write this post.

    I don’t assume they come from any specific kind of society, just a more advanced one than ours. They seem primitive and simple to us, but the film also makes it clear that we know almost nothing about them (what they eat, where they come from, where they were going, what their home planet is like, etc), and we display a shocking lack of curiosity as well. I would say that’s one of the main messages of the movie.

    As a metaphor, the scientist builds an elaborate and beautiful underground “garage”. It may be that the prawns prefer to live and work underground, but all we see (and judge) are the useless shacks.

    As far as distributing knowledge goes, most humans don’t know how to operate a power plant or pilot an airplane. Modern life is extremely specialized. A computer programmer would be pretty useless in ancient times, for example. It’s possible that the so-called “lower class” prawns in the movie are in fact simply out of their element (maybe it’s a sales convention?). Again, it’s hard to judge the intelligence of these beings, given that they come from a totally different culture and society.

    Regarding #2, the sifting through garbage, we may find it unseemly, but I point out in my post that they were arguably salvaging things for repairing and operating their ship. Most of the amazing technology that the scientist/engineer makes, including a holographic display, seems to be made of our discarded electronics. So they could be analyzing our garbage for potential technologies that we can’t even imagine.

    Last but not least, the non-violence thing is something of a reach, I admit, extrapolating based on the fact that they have more advanced technology than us that they also have more advanced morals than us. But I think that the fact that they appear nonviolent throughout almost the entire movie, which takes place several years after “first contact”, indicates that they are in fact, essentially nonviolent.

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