District 9: The epiphany of the everyday Eichmann

I don’t usually like science fiction movies—an odd prejudice, not shared by most other readers in the genre.

I do have a teenage son though, so we went together to see District 9 this week.

As usual, I liked it better for what it might have been than what it was. It had a good vomitcam/found-media look to it, and the scenes were well structured, timed, and acted. The special effects weren’t ludicrous. The landscape and setting were solid.

But, looked at as a whole, the movie was incredibly creepy--and not in the way I think the director and writer intended.

I’m sure you know the story by now. Backstory: refugee aliens get dumped in Johannesburg and everyone hates these lowlife scum but doesn’t know what to do with them.

Story: Eichmann-like resettlement bureaucrat (played with entirely inappropriate charm by Shartlo Copley) who loves his wife and petit-bourgeouis life has something terrible happen to him and, in trying to escape what has happened to him, inadvertently helps someone else. The movie sets him in a hero position, but he is an awful human being.  First he lies and manipulates uneducated aliens to move them to an unpleasant camp out in the desert, eliminating their unhatched eggs in the process. Then, when the bad thing happens to him and his organization turns against him, he murders dozens of his former friends and colleagues without a whimper or sign of grief, and then betrays a friend and tries to kidnap his friend’s child in order to cravenly save himself. Only when that attempt fails does he return and kill many more of his former colleagues so that there can be some kind of hopeful ending (the basic “put the battery into the flashlight” or “attach the gardening hose” denouement that makes up a good chunk of both SF and fantasy).

I’m not even going to go into the it’s-a-dessert-topping-it’s-a-floorwax black ichor that can changes a human into an alien and power a spaceship, all at the same time, or the alien weaponry that litters the landscape that the aliens never use, even against each other.

How do we end up rooting for this guy at all? We marketers know to offer you an unpalatable product, or one clearly too expensive, before we offer you the product we want you to buy, which then seems quite reasonable by contrast. This is known as the “irrelevant alternative”. Character sets in fiction can serve the same purpose. Just as Eichmann might seem better compared to Himmler or Heydrich, so this guy seems better compared to his shaven-headed irrelevant alternatives (one a sinister supervisor, the other an overarmed thug).  And one of them practices a terrible betrayal of his own.

The more I think about it, the more startling the whole thing is.  Do we pay attention to anything anymore?