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District 9 & They Live: The SciFi-as-Political Allegory Double Feature

August 26, 2009

Science Fiction has many iterations, from the hero’s journey myth-making of the Star Wars universe (Original Trilogy, expanded universe, even video games, but not those bloody prequels) to the speculative space opera that is the Star Trek universe (original series, Khan, and the reboot).  What’s that, you say? I’ve limited my spectrum to the two most popular series in order to appeal to the masses?  Ok, that’s fair.  Maybe even true.  Is it worse or better if I tell you I’m not going to do the umpteenth comparison of these two franchises, nor am I trying to heat up the rivalry between the two (I’m an OT man, myself), but instead just want to talk about my dumb-luck double feature of District 9 and They Live?  Does it matter?

I went to District 9 on opening night and then, having no idea I was about to see D-9’s older, dumber allegorical brother, sat down to watch They Live for the first time a couple days later.  I immediately noticed (look at me, I’m smart…or I’m really stretching for some connective tissue) the structural and thematic similarities between the two films.  Quality, not so much.  Structurally, each film follows a lone, male protagonist who starts out as a tool of the system, only to discover an object that forces them to see the vast conspiracy hidden just below the surface.   In They Live, it’s a pair of sunglasses that allow a glimpse at the true nature of reality (yes, you read that correctly); in District 9, it’s a cylinder that you should under no circumstances open without safety goggles.  Both men are then forced to go on the lam as the powers behind the conspiracy bring their weapons to bear, and each movie becomes a straight-forward action/chase film, much to the benefit of District 9 and to the detriment of They Live.

As for the men themselves, District 9 gives us Wikus Van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley, a man who had never acted before, but who’s far too good to never act again), a mid-level government bureaucrat–type, happy to have the opportunity to prove he can do more than push pencils.  His father-in-law arranges for him to be in charge of the team serving eviction notices to the aliens (derogatorily called prawns and nothing else) before they are forcibly removed from the slum called District 9 and sent to District 10, a “camp”—with all that that implies—far away from the city.  He’s the kind of guy who tells others, and probably himself, that this is being done because it’s the best thing for the prawns, but in truth, he finds them repellent and can’t wait to see them gone. In the service of the job, he’ll put a boot on a neck or offer kindness as he deems necessary.  His progression through the film is cathartic—for the character, and moreso for the viewer—and yet he never becomes altruistic.  He’s betrayed (in a particularly sinister scene, and in a heart-breaking one), and he’s the betrayer.  He kills, and he saves lives.  He takes down the villains, and steps on the good guys.  He does the right thing, the hard thing, but he does it because it will get him what he wants, what he desperately needs.  It’s rare to see such moral ambiguity survive the course of any film, but especially a SciFi, action film.  Character complexity is usually sacrificed to humanity’s ego-stroking and back-slapping.  Which brings us to They Live.  I’ll give it some credit, initially it does make an attempt to give the main character some depth, but when you cast “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, former wrestling heel, as that character, multi-layered character development probably wasn’t a priority.  Once the sunglasses go on, Piper becomes your typical bad-ass action hero who has come to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and he’s all out of bubblegum (Don’t look at me like that, it’s a line from the movie).

Thematically, both movies use Science Fiction as a means to explore the darker realities of our society.  District 9 looks at the way we demonize and exploit those different from us, and They Live satirizes the ubiquitous and mind-numbing nature of our consumer culture (and does it 20 years ago).  Neither film is entirely subtle in its attempts.  District 9 is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, which anybody who wasn’t in a coma for the latter half of the 20th Century would know as the place where the separation of the races was just good government policy.  To be fair, the director and writer, Neill Blomkamp, is South African, and setting it there with South African actors gives the film a realistic look and a peculiar feel that would never have been achieved had the movie been set in an American city.   And Blomkamp is smart enough to never set up a one-to-one comparison to the apartheid era, but instead uses the history of the place to give us a familiar foothold before knocking us on our collective asses.

I feel strange writing this, but you could almost say They Live starts out with some quiet misdirection.  There’s a slow build, and although the movie definitely drops hints as to where we’re going, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a Norma Rae for the WWF set. And then those sunglasses appear, and They Live stops trying to be shrewd and just goes for it.  The aliens look like ghouls and all advertising—billboards, storefront signage, magazines, etc.—is subliminally telling you to OBEY, CONSUME, MARRY AND REPRODUCE. Seen through the sunglasses, money is just white sheets of paper with THIS IS YOUR GOD printed in block lettering.  Like I said, there’s no nuance here.  Not that I think there should be.  It’s satire in the broadest strokes, but until the action starts, it works, probably because consumerism and subtlety don’t really go well together in the first place.   But the action does start, and it’s dumb and not all that fun (except for the alley fight between Piper and Keith David.  Just when you think it’s about to end, there are at least five more shots to the groin. It goes past the point of being ridiculous all the way to hilarious.).   Never once do the set-pieces come close to the rousing bombast of District 9.  Some of that can be blamed on the technology of the time. I might say budget as well, except District 9 was made for $30 million and looks like 150 (this little tidbit makes me despise Michael Bay all the more), while They Live was made for $3 million in 1988 and looks exactly that.  Mostly, the action is stilted and repetitive and just seems to lack imagination.  Oddly enough, Piper is actually much better at playing the down-on-his-luck, unemployed drifter of the opening than he is at being an action hero.  Whereas in District 9, you have Copley, who I’m still not convinced isn’t Spike Jones with a Afrikaans accent, become what “Rowdy” only wishes he could be—a straight-up, ass-kicking (thinking man’s) action god.  Granted, he has the benefit of being the only human who can use alien technology, including a gun that is very, very messy and an exoskeleton that answers the age-old question of truck vs. alien robotic body armor, but you will believe it when he wields that weaponry.

I know I seem to be tearing down They Live, but really, it’s a fun movie that hasn’t aged particularly well.  It’s got a few moments of smart, a few of funny, more than a few of dumb, and truckloads of 1988.  As for District 9, it’s way too early to say, but it feels like one of those movies that spawns a generation of film-lovers and film-makers.   A smart, original idea, by a young and visionary director, with no known actors, made cheaply without looking cheap, marketed well without being hyped, and set up for a sequel that comes out of story rather than greed, this little film could change the whole landscape for SciFi movies in the near future and beyond.  We can only hope.

In other words, if you’re going to have a double feature, watch They Live first.

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