District 9 is not a pretty movie. It doesn’t look pretty. Its message isn’t pretty. It hurts the eyes to watch. In fact, District 9 is an outright ugly movie, but it is an ugly that is perfectly crafted and takes ugly to the heights of a new aesthetic. The screen is full of unflinchingly realistic ugly slums, banal ugly interiors of institutionalized spaces, and ugly people whose entire lives and bodies have been corrupted by the ugly greedy powers that dominate everything in the landscape.
Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, the movie centers on a camp of stranded space aliens who have been contained within a hideous filthy militarized slum and are in the process of being relocated to a concentration camp in the desert. Through its narrative, District 9 overtly exposes South Africa’s egregious practice of apartheid, a system of segregation that was the government-sanctioned practice of legal racism. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out this connection and to understand the film in relation to its historic and geographic specificity. Certainly, apartheid and all systems of racism need to be addressed. But what makes this movie most interesting is how it uses the real life practice of apartheid as a jumping point to expose a whole global system of exploitation, discrimination, and economic cannibalism.District 9 doesn’t take on these big issues with bombastic Hollywood gloss and spectacle, but rather through a beautifully ugly hybrid of film genres – sci-fi, body horror, toxic accident, war and action films – to show how in a world where the toxins of global capital are so fluid, everything is corrupt, nothing is in its natural state, and toxic hybrids have become the new norm.
Though District 9 is indeed a mix-up of a number of film genres, it is first and foremost science fiction. But this is not the über-slick sci-fi of Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg that has dominated the global marketplace for the past couple of decades. District 9 isn’t the kind of high gloss spectacle that subordinates any meaningful socio-political content in a tale to the quest for maximum proft.. District 9’s ugly exterior and its realistic settings work to reclaim the ideological backbone of the best sci-fi by de-glossing the sci-fi production and bringing it down to the land of the real. Long ago and far away, sci-fi was a genre that was used to expose and critique savage socio-political systems. Sci-fi in the tradition of Philip K. Dick served a political function. Often infused with a good dose of Marxism, sci-fi dissected and exposed collusions between industry and government to achieve global economic domination at the expense of the working people, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized. In fact, the sci-fi of the past often exposed a system not unlike the Global Capital Machine of the present, the one that dominates the globe and cannibalizes the vast majority of the world’s population. As the Hollywood Machine became more sanitized and safe (beginning with the Reagan era and moving forward), sci-fi became an industry staple to generate enormous profits instead of civil unrest. Any subversive political content became glossed over by mega FX and superstar heroes that raked in enormous profits at the box office. Sure, sci-fi movies have tangentially addressed political and economic corruption, but rarely with a hell of a lot of conviction or bearing on the real world.
There is no denying the real world in District 9. …