Monday, August 17, 2009

Truth is Structure Like a (Science) Fiction: Notes on Moon and District 9

Last summer, and perhaps even the summer before, I did a series of blog entries on the summer blockbusters, viewing them for their subtle and not so subtle ideological dimensions. I have not done this at all this summer, in part because I have seen many blockbusters. Aside from Star Trek, I just could not stomach this summer’s offerings. I have, however, seen a few films, two of which I want to write about now. These two films are Moon and District 9. At first glance it would make sense to write about them at the same time because they have generally been spoken of in the same breath of almost hyperbolic praise. They are said to represent a renaissance in science fiction cinema, a return of character, story, and concept in a genre long dominated by special effects, remakes, and marketing.

Beyond such a superficial resemblance, a resemblance defined primarily by what they are not, namely, yet another effects driven remake, there does not seem to anything to link these two films. The first, Moon, is practically a one-man show, a meditation on isolation and identity, with a strong retro aesthetic. Its image of a moon base made of white plastic, as well as its use of models, would seem to place it in any earlier era. District 9 on the other hand is filmed using the faux documentary techniques and handheld camera made popular in recent films. It is also an action film that utilizes the recent CGI techniques, but one that in terms of its location, South Africa, and lack of a single recognizable star, does not resemble any other such film.

It occurs to me that if one begins to look at the narrative of each film, especially for the ideological dimensions referenced above, one arrives at other similarities. In each film we have a protagonist who begins as a functioning member of the existing society, who then, by discovering the true basis of that society, necessarily revolts against it. This is a common trope in science fiction, that of the outsider, a character who is outside of the world in question, a time traveler or visitor to an alien world. This perhaps due to the limitations of the genre itself. One of the difficulties of science fiction film (and literature) is that it must present a world that is alien to the viewer (or reader), some distant future, alternate history, or alien culture, but familiar to the characters in the story. In film in particular there are not a lot of good ways to solve this problem, there is the ponderous opening narration (“In a world…”), the scrolling screen made famous by Star Wars, or the break in the action where some sage like character explains everything, think Morpheus in The Matrix. The outsider character, such as Neo, solves some of the more awkward aspects of this in that it makes disclosing the world part of the narrative. However, these two films offer something like a variation on this, a character who becomes an outsider. In a manner of speaking, they are narratives of “consciousness raising,” perhaps even class-consciousness.


In Moon, the main character, Sam Bell, is completing the end of a three-year contract as the only human inhabitant of lunar mining colony. He has an accident that nearly kills him and because of this eventually discovers that he is a clone, one of many stored in a secret basement of the lunar base. Video footage of the base’s security cameras suggests that the three-year “contract” is actually the lifespan of each clone (shades of Bladerunner). This suggests an interesting legal loophole; if the contract in question has a clause that renders the contract null and void at the time of death, then the corporation running the moon base is in some sense honoring its contract, only employing the person in question for three years. That it then activates another clone with the same memories and personality cannot really be said to be a violation of the terms of the contract. Moon suggests that the old metaphysical problem of identity (am I the same person as my clone?) is destined to become the fine print in the labor contract.

Moon calls to mind one of the most rhetorically dense and conceptually rich passages from Capital. In this passage Marx distinguishes between the sphere of circulation, the labor market, where goods, including labor power are sold and the site of production. Marx’s point is that it is from this realm, that of the market, that we get our ideology of the free market, of exchange as a relation between equals in which individual self interest always prevails. As Marx writes:

“The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, equality, and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labor power, are determined by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law…The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each….”

“Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”

In the hidden abode of production the equality that characterizes individuals in market relations collapses. As Marx writes, “He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.” In other words, the labor market is not at all like the market of goods, it is defined by a fundamental conflict, and asymmetry, between the worker with only his labor power to sell and the capitalist. The film displays this radical division between two realms. Underneath the lunar base there is a massive storehouse of clones (and the food to feed them). Within the base itself employer and employee may meet as equals, but beneath it lies a massive “reserve army of the unemployed”: the neutrality of the contract is contradicted by the technological and social conditions that remain out of sight. Only an anomalous accident brings Sam Bell face to face with his own clone, with his own expendability and exploitation, making it possible, in an act of solidarity with himself, for him to resist the system.

District 9 is also a film about an individual coming to recognize exploitation, only in this case it is not the central character that is being exploited. The film takes place in an alternate South Africa, where an alien spaceship has become stranded over Johannesburg for the last twenty-eight years. The aliens, referred to throughout the movie by the derogatory term “prawns” because of their crustacean/insect appearance, have been living in a giant ghetto. At the beginning of the film the aliens are in the process of being relocated to a camp far outside of the city. This is presented as a humanitarian gesture, as something that will lessen the conflicts between humans and aliens and the tendency for the aliens to be exploited by gangs. The film centers on Wikus Van De Merwe, an agent for the apparently private corporation, MNU (Multi-National United) that is charged with the task of managing the aliens. Early in the film we learn two things about Wikus: first, he has been promoted to a central role in the relocation project primary because his father-in-law is one of the people in charge of the organization, and, second, he truly believes in the idea of the alien’s containment and relocation. This second fact instantly sets him apart from some of the military and private police in charge of the district, who relish their ability to persecute the aliens at will. Wikus would rather cajole the aliens with cat food, something that is “like catnip to them,” than beat them into submission. In other words Wikus is the distillation of all of the recent headlines about private contract firms and NGOs: he has been promoted due to nepotism and connections (shades of Michael "Heckuva job, Brownie" Brown) and yet sincerely believes in his mission.

District 9 is in some sense a story about a race traitor. Wikus becomes exposed to alien technology that gradually begins to alter his DNA transforming him into an alien. This makes it possible for him to utilize the alien’s weapons, which are bioengineered to interact with the alien’s physiology. He becomes a valuable commodity to the organization he works for, eventually destined to be harvested for his organs. Wikus eventually comes to learn that the truth of exploitation underlies the ideal of humanitarian aid. MNU’s real interest is not the private management of humanitarian aid to non humans, but weapons development. As Wikus is transformed, his allegiances shift as well, forcing him into an uneasy alliance with the aliens that he formerly managed with an air of superiority. The allegiance is never an easy one, this is not a buddy movie, in part because Wikus is so reluctant, desiring nothing more than returning to normal, but also because he was formerly so complicit in the aliens exploitation, albeit unknowingly. The scenes in which he confronts his own complicity in what has happened to the aliens are some of the most powerful in the film. Wikus is thus an interesting sort of anti-hero, who sacrifices himself almost despite himself. Ultimately, it is the contradiction in his life that makes him a hero at all. He got to where he is through his connections, through his father in-law, but would much rather be behind a desk, making gifts for his wife. His failure to fully identify with the repressive aspect of his job, to be fully interpellated by the repressive aspect of the job, makes it possible for him to turn against it. He believes too much in the public face he is supposed to present, that of benevolent aid to a wayward species, to see that its unofficial version, violent hatred and exploitation, is just as central, if not more so, to his function.

In the end that is what ties these two films together, they both present characters that believe very much in the ideas of rules and contracts, of the benevolence of the established powers and the rewards that come with following the rules. It takes a massive psychic and physical transformation, meeting one’s clone or being transformed into an alien, in order for them to arrive at a different understanding of society, to see that rules are more often than not masks for exploitation. They are us, the docile subjects of the modern neoliberal order, now only if we could meet our clone or get hit by massive amounts of alien DNA.


David Marin-Guzman said...

I'm not sure I share your impression of Wikus. For me he was a classic racist from beginning to end. The difference between him and the soldiers was that Wikus liked to tame/hide the horror of racism (use of catfood, making jokes) while still achieving the same ends. But the film presents this racism as a kind of likeable ignorance/stupidity - it's a jocular and 'naive' racism that's easier to stomach.

But of course, as soon as Wikus' position becomes untenable or remotely threatened he is all to willing for force to be used. To me Wikus is a far more dislikeable character than the soldiers precisely because he's so disingenous. I didn't get the impression he believed in what he was doing but only that he was a cowardly, corporate lackey - his belief in these 'public laws' was always just a way of being a good employee. He always knews the relocation camps were just concentration camps but it's easier for him to pretend he's a benevolent humanitarian. Even after he transforms, I never got the sense that his actions were motivated by anything but desperation and selfishness. Even his sudden character shift at the end seemed more reckless and arbitrary than a genuine shift from his self centred actions. For me, the hardcore racist soldiers are more likeable characters because at least they're honest and coherent about their beliefs and allegiences!

I take a look at the racist subtext of the film in more detail here:

Jane Kuenz said...

I agree with David about Wikus, who strikes several early false notes before revealing the full extent of his callous racism in the scene where alien "eggs" are "aborted." He jokes to the others about the popping sound the eggs make as they explode. None of the splatter-shot gaming violence of the later battles had the same shock or punch as this moment, at least for me. The moral blindness of the act is compounded for viewers by the introduction almost immediately after of an alien child, as if to emphasize the gap between the dehumanizing "egg" terminology and the reality of the very human-like alien child, who acts throughout with the same mix of fear and resourcefulness characteristic of children in frightening situations (at least in movies). Wikus never demonstrates an ounce of concern for this child when he stupidly tries to escape in the smaller craft, and his later return to help the child's father is too late and already compromised by self-interest.

My main reaction to this film is that it is a wasted opportunity and seems determined to blow it in the sequel as well. I will probably see this again on DVD just to catch more things in the dialogue, especially in the beginning, but I found Moon much more thought-provoking overall.

unemployed negativity said...

David, I liked your post on the film very much. In general I was interested in what I saw as certain formal resemblances between the narratives of the two films, especially with respect to the protagonist. Ultimately, I agree that Wikus is racist, but his racism is of a paternalistic sort, constrained by rules. This is distinct from the soldiers. In this respect the "alien abortion" scene is the most telling and I agree, Jane, that it is one of the more disturbing aspect of the film. Soon after Wikus gleefully burns the alien nest/incubator he prevents another soldier from shooting the alien child. He simply states, we cannot do that. He makes no moral distinction, just one of rules.

unemployed negativity said...

I have to admit that I am increasingly ambivalent about District 9, finding it to be at once original and derivative, provocative and banal. Here is very enthusiastic discussion, however, from the incomparable Kim Dot Dammit: