Tag Archives: Films

Science-Fiction als Boundary Management

Ende Oktober 2018 wurde mein Beitrag “Boundaries and Otherness in Science-Fiction: We Cannot Escape the Human Condition” in Text Matters, Volume 8, Number 8, 2018 veröffentlicht. Unten der Abstrakt, den ganzen Artikel gibt es Open Access hier.

Abstract: The article explores the construction of boundaries, alterity and otherness in modern science-fiction (SF) films. Boundaries, understood as real state borders, territoriality and sovereignty, as well as the construction of the other beyond an imagined border and delimited space, have a significant meaning in the dystopian settings of SF. Even though SF topics are not bound to the contemporary environment, be it of a historical, technical or ethical nature, they do relate to the present-day world and transcend our well-known problems. Therefore, SF offers a pronounced discourse about current social challenges under extreme conditions such as future technological leaps, encounters with the alien other or the end of the world. At the same time the genre enables us to play through future challenges that might really happen. Films like Equilibrium (2002), Code 46 (2003), Children of Men (2006) and District 9 (2009) show that in freely constructed cinematic settings we are not only unable to escape from our border conflicts, but quite the contrary, we take them everywhere with us, even to an alternative present or into the future, where new precarious situations of otherness are constructed.

Humanity and the alien “other“ in District 9

Confronted with the alien other, what are the limits of humanity? How do we deal with such a challenge? Will our morals change? These are the crucial questions Neil Bloomkamp’s “District 9” from 2009 is dealing with. Because of its social impetus, Bloomkamp’s first full-length feature was even nominated for best picture in the 2010 Academy Awards. But like the short movie forerunner “Alive in Joburg”, District 9 tells us nothing good at all about humanity.

District 9There are many ways to analyze popular culture and particularly science fiction. One possibility is to view it “as evidence about dominant norms, ideas, identities, or beliefs in a particular state, society or region”.[1] In this sense, District 9 by using the extreme other of the extraterrestrial alien confronts us with a more acute version of the discrimination, exclusion and marginalization going on in our real world. This is even more the case since the plot – in spite of being science fiction – is not taking place in the future but in an alternative presence. What makes District 9 special in this regard is the “reality fiction” element locating the story within a realistic setting. The authentic appearance of the movie is enforced by the use of hand cameras which conveys a feeling of embedment as if the viewers were watching a documentary. After having accepted one initial rare event paving the way for extreme circumstances, the audience finds the plot running in reasonable and comprehensible ways, yet allowing our current political and social problems to step forward more extremely like being viewed under a magnifying glass.

In District 9 such an event is the alien encounter. The story begins in the year of 1982 when an alien starship comes down to earth and after having suffered some technical defect ends up hovering right above the city of Johannesburg in South Africa. After a while the humans decide to enter the starship where they find thousands of injured, sick and frightened alien creatures. Like humans, they count on four extremities and walk upright, but they are much bigger and appear somewhat between an insect and a reptile; around their mouth they have even fish-like barbells. This kind of perverse and distorted proximity to human appearance is quite unsightly from a human perspective. Nobody knows what to do with the large number of uninvited, but intelligent guests so the “prawns” – as they are pejoratively called – are settled in the provisional camp “District 9”. After this initial backlash the actual storyline takes place almost 30 years later in the then presence of 2009. The aliens still living in District9, having become a totally neglected and precarious place, eke out a miserable and degenerated existence. Their life is marked by criminal doings and black market activities of South Africans who exploit their desperate situation. Order is maintained more or less by “Multinational United” (MNU) a not further specified private organization/corporation permeated by xenophobic staff. They are preparing a resettlement of the aliens to District 10 which is located 200 kilometers outside of Joburg. One can imagine that MNU pursues more lucrative objectives by trying to access the modern weapon technologies of the aliens which only work in combination with their alien DNA (why the aliens do not use their weapons for an uprising will remain the central flaw of the movie).

The parallels being drawn with the help of the extreme image of the alien other are apparent: The ruthless MNU reminds us of the highly criticized private security providers not abiding by international law engaged by the US during the course of the Iraq war. Obviously, in the movie there is neither an international outcry nor an inclusive international organization taking care of this problem. Has the UN been substituted for an agency without scruples? Or is it simply uninterested, powerless or riveted by the disagreement of its members? In any case this makes us think about the fatal inactiveness of the UN in Ruandaposter_district_nine_ver14 1994, or currently in Somalia and Syria and many other places leading to unspeakable atrocities. While setting the story in South African Joburg alludes not only to the crimes committed by the Apartheid Regime, but it furthermore shows that history is just repeating itself like a vicious circle: Thus, according to the movie, the South African Apartheid System between humans was just replaced by a new one between humans and aliens. Is it just an inherent part of the human nature to always discriminate against an outgroup? The aliens are thereby a metaphor for all the excluded and marginalized people worldwide, and very concretely for the hundreds of thousands Palestinians living in huge refugee camps in Yemen or Jordan without any perspective for a better future. Remarkable in this sense is a scene in the movie of human activists protesting for “human rights” for the intelligent aliens which raises question about what it means to be human as well as where humanity begins and ends. Consequently, the genetic humans act highly inhumane, whereas the main character Vikus van der Merwe, after having been infected with a virus transforming him to an alien, appears ever more humane in his metamorphose.

Of crucial importance is also a point which is not even mentioned in the film, but which brings a hopeless message for humanity in its banality: District 9 lacks the global impact of a possible alien contact which could have at least united the humans and led to the establishment of a common human identity.[2] Contrary for example to the utopian setting of Star Trek where the first contact with the Vulcans united the “human race”, the alien contact in District 9 is absolutely limited to South Africa. In this country and as it seems also in the rest of the world suppression between humans is going on as ever independent of the spectacular starship hovering above the city of Joburg. The direct contact with the alien other has not provoked any effect for a positive development of humanity, quite the contrary, we look all the more brutal and savage.[3]

[1] Nexon, Daniel H./Iver B. Neumann: Harry Potter and international relations. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2006, p.13.

[2] Wendt, Alexander: Collective Identity Formation and the International State. In: American Political Science Review 88/2 (1994), p 389.

[3] Interesting in this regard: Albert A. Harrison: After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life. New York: Perseus Books Group 2002