The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

This Movie is Every Kind of Sick.

September 19, 2009

If you need a little stomach-turning yet intellectually provocative weekend fun, go watch District 9 while it’s still in theatres. Only check your disbelief at the door. (I mean seriously. If two of your teeth fall casually out of your rotting mouth in the space of ten seconds, you’re not about to get through storming a fortified secret biolab with the rest of them intact, are you now? And since when can humans and aliens understand one another’s languages without a universal translator?)

If you’ve not seen it (and chances you have, I’m usually late to these things since my typical night out to movies still in theatres involves children too young to watch people bite their own fingernails off) Rob Williams sums it up pretty well: “Think ‘Blair Witch Project’ meets ‘Aliens’ meets ‘Borat.'” Aliens arrive at earth to be cast into apartheid-like conditions policed by a sprawling and corrupt private security firm. The rest is a commentary on the Weberian state, emnification processes between in-groups and out-groups, the grimy reality of slum conditions, and the similarities between medical science and voodoo cannibalism. Oh, with a good old-fashioned adversity-makes-a-real-man-of-you hero narrative.

Students who saw it ahead of me raved about it: “Professor, you have to see this film, I watched it and all I could think about was your class!” And true it’s chock full of provocative themes straight out of a human security textbook (though you would think given the context that the political semantics might be slightly more sophisticated).

Sharmini Brooks says the film is full of cliches and it is. (I mean, we get that it’s a play on different kinds of apartheid. Did it really have to be set in Johannnesburg to make that point – wouldn’t any megacity do?) But maybe so. Eric Conway-Smith of the Global Post sees the film as a commentary not on the many forms of institutionalised exclusion American audiences (especially human security students) could read into the plot, but literally about actual living conditions in South Africa’s present-day slums.

I think the most interesting subtext is not about slum life or social exclusion or even identity and interests and liminality and man’s inhumanity to prawns but about the media Panopticon. The mockumentary format of the early and final scenes implies that the non-mockumentary parts have been cobbled together by news cameras constantly watching everything… it’s an eerie effect when you can’t even barf in privacy. Where must one go for a little respect anyway, off-planet?

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.