All In

Loss, Love, and Transformation in District 9

The world is flawed; humanity is corrupt ─ we know that ─ and we wonder what we can do about it. Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 suggests we be the change, even if change proves to be frightening and unexpected. The film depicts a segregated Johannesburg under the shadow of an evil corporation, not to mention the giant spaceship stalled above the city. Conflict is rife and any spirit of change is squashed by a pervasive xenophobia, strong enough to make “being the change” a horrifying but profoundly fulfilling process. The District 9 metamorphosis reflects the “tiny little bit” so central to John de Ruiter’s teaching. It’s the purest, most exacting point of knowing, the finest threshold. Transformation will be thorough and it may be unpleasant.

From Johannesburg’s overhanging spaceship comes a colony of malnourished aliens relegated to the slums. The Apartheid parallel is obvious, but the sight and size of the prawn-like creatures takes cultural difference to a new level, lending some sensibility to fear of “the other.” Bridging that cultural divide takes so much more than understanding: it takes everything. Mikus Van de Werve goes through the cultural portal and, in a world of greed and antagonism, loses all possession and identity. But while Mikus is a vanguard of cultural reconciliation, he is also a symbol of spiritual metamorphosis. His surface life is lost, reformed to mirror his inner destitution. In the heart, however, he retains the only thing that matters.

Love is the prevailing value in District 9, but is overlooked and painfully grasped for Mikus, as it is for any viewer distracted by so many images of human depravity. The opening scenes show a great dilemma, human society struggling with an alien underbelly it can can’t deny and can’t accept. It’s challenging, but not wrong. Wrong is the murder and exploitation of the aliens by the military juggernaut, Multi-national United, the Nigerian thugs who eat the prawns, and the father-in-law who tries to harvest Mikus’ body. And despite his innocent demeanor, Mikus is part of the inhumanity. He deceives the prawns out of their homes, sets fire to their shacks, and kills their offspring. If not for his awkward naiveté, Mikus would be a fiend.

District 9 depicts a mean humanity and Mikus, both innocent and brutal, is its fitting symbol. He starts out dubiously promoted, a manipulator who relates to power, not compassion, and ends up stripped and pure at heart. His metamorphosis shows the change that we know we need, and he pays for it. Black vomit, loose finger nails, and teeth falling out is only the beginning. You cringe to watch illness destroy his body, only to realize that however shocking, it isn’t death ─ it’s only change. By the time Mikus starts peeling the skin off his back, you realize you have to let him go. A sense of inevitability eases your revulsion and you open your mind to total transformation.

You quickly detect a quality in the aliens, particularly in Christopher, that alters your perspective on prawns and Mikus’ transformation. The prawns look shocking at first, but as Mikus turns into one, and Christopher proves to be a hero, you remember how true it is that the inside counts most. Christopher’s kindness and courage redefine alien. He’s human in the most important way. If anybody is a beast, it’s Mikus.

Mikus’ inner brute takes form on the outside while, in his heart, he becomes less alien to others and himself. He finally has compassion and the courage to stand up for it and his perspective expands. He witnesses Christopher’s integrity and the mutilation of the prawns, that greedy human interests mean nothing compared to the bigger picture. He opens a big new alien eye and watches Christopher’s pod return to the mothership. He’s a different being with different seeing, not because he’s a prawn, but because he’s good.

While he breaks down, Mikus also moves into a new kind of power. Whereas, at first, he shares the universal power-lust, Mikus gains ability inextricably linked to loss. MNU seeks military and financial clout; the Nigerian gangsters want weaponry, and the soldiers like Koobus relish the power to kill. Mikus acquires the object of their desire, but his power costs his life as he knew it. He experiences the reality that, in truth, power is loss. The more you have, the more you have to give. Power is only a requirement to give more. Desperate for his old self, Mikus resists that responsibility at first, but he realizes that his power serves a greater purpose: he must return Christopher to the mothership to save the oppressed.

While he fights the change, Mikus’ metamorphosis is deterioration, but as he accepts the abilities of his new body, he awakens to a larger perspective. His new physical ability is of a deeper nature. Being a prawn offers the power of advanced weaponry, but prawn power, unlike its human counterpart, is integrated. The biological connection between prawns and their technology symbolizes an organic connection with power, power that requires as much as it gives. As the weapons only respond to the aliens, their technology is part of their biology. This principle is conveyed in such images as the pod that requires Mikus to immerse his hand in blue goo, or the robot that engages Mikus painfully through the spine. Most significant, however, is the black fluid that Christopher collects over twenty years. It’s the key to rebooting the mothership and it reconstitutes Mikus’ DNA. Sadly for humans, technology opposes nature. For the prawns, technology is biology; oil is blood.

Not only is alien power integrated, it far surpasses human technology. Their weapons and computers are elite and, most importantly, they reached Earth. Aside from indicating their superior technology, their landing reflects a character of evolution and connectivity. Christopher proves it when, despite Mikus’ early betrayal, Christopher stands by him in dire straits: “No, we stick together. I’m not leaving you here.” He promises to return for Mikus in three years and escapes to rescue his suffering community. Christopher proves that turning into a prawn will only cost Mikus the familiar: his integrity depends on his heart, not his body.

And at the peak of his power, on the cusp of true alienation, Mikus is finally honourable. He earns the love that becomes his only connection to a lost life. He finds integrity in his last human hours. By the time of full metamorphosis, he lacks nothing that matters. His early affection for his wife, naive and confined to his self-orientation, becomes real and unrequited love. He is alien to the world, but connected to the true heart of it. He loses all he enjoys on the surface and grasps the one thread that is worth everything. Breaking into MNU, Mikus says to Christopher, “I didn’t say anything about a way out. I promised you we’d get in!” In the same way, Mikus enters his shocking but profound transformation. The media lies about it. The academics and reporters don’t get it. Only “all in” can.


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