District 9: The Legacy of Wikus Van De Merwe By David Wingert
In District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009), Earth has made contact with aliens. However, rather than attacking mankind or treating it like a lab experiment, these aliens are here due to unfortunate circumstances and simply wish to coexist with us. Unfortunately, coexistence serves to be just as problematic as invasion and racial segregation is the result.
This setting is where Wikus Van De Merwe comes in. Wikus is an everyday hero: he’s a young man with a wife and a successful job. He has just gotten promoted in his organization. Little does he know—and little does the audience know—that he will soon face crises in his marriage and his life, and with his alien neighbors and ultimately his humanity. Wikus Van De Merwe’s legacy in the world of District 9 becomes the film’s legacy to its viewers.
In the first trailer for District 9, a string of interviews are cut together. They are all saying something similar: “They’re nothing but trouble, they’re not welcome, they should just go.” Anyone seeing it would assume that some racial group is being subjected to hatred. Then a shot of the alien spacecraft appears. District 9 gives us an alien we are not used to seeing.
Throughout film history, aliens have often been depicted as a separated “other” whose threat towards earth unites mankind against a common enemy. These films usually portray the aliens as being superior to humans, especially in intelligence—and if they were to have their particular technologies that they do in these movies, this would be an understandable difference between us. District 9 plays against these expectations. Though the aliens do have foreign technology, they are not necessarily seen as being smarter than us. In fact it could be argued that we are smarter than this race of aliens (at least in the context of our society norms). The “flying saucer” is present in this film much like the stereotypical alien films of the fifties and sixties, but these aliens are not here to destroy or harvest us. It would seem that the aliens possess the desire that any human has: the desire to live. However, this desire is thwarted by mankind’s racism and injustices as the aliens are subjected to the slum of District 9. In fact, it could be said that MNU’s weapons manufacturing corporation becomes the stereotypical “alien” and harvests the stranded aliens to experiment and take advantage of their unique weapons.
MNU is where we find Wikus Van De Merwe. Wikus immediately comes across as a warm, loving character with a genuine smile that seems to be permanently imbedded across his face. Everyone seems to know him and no one has any quarrels with him. When he gets his promotion as chief overseer of the eviction of District 9, everyone including the audience is thrilled. His humanity glows and we feel it as an audience that desires to see such things on the big screen.
However, interviews during a later date begin to portray Wikus as someone who’s deceased. These interviews are then sprinkled with several comments of spite and remorse towards him. This isn’t the Wikus we see, but then he enters District 9. The eviction of District 9 is an injustice that the director makes obvious to the viewers but not the characters, including Wikus. Here we see Wikus treat the aliens like dogs: no intelligence, no kindness, no humanity. In light of everything else we know of Wikus, this seems like a black ink stain on a white shirt. It shows how racism can be so deep within society that even the most upright citizens can possess it and it can still be overlooked.
After an accident during the eviction, Wikus finds himself turning into an alien. This sends Wikus’ life spiraling out of control. Within a couple days, Wikus loses his wife, is branded as a target of the state, runs away to District 9, and above all is gradually becoming an alien. On the surface this could be seen as simply poetic justice for his wrongdoings towards the aliens, but Wikus was too empathetic of a character for us to simply say “serves you right”. We want to see him gain his life back, we pity him as he breaks down at the sight of his human skin peeling off and being replaced by alien flesh.
Wikus eventually concludes that the only way to get his life back is to help the alien Christopher and his son obtain the fuel necessary for them to get home. Though we empathized with the aliens since the beginning of the film, it is only through Christopher and his son that we begin to see the humanity that the aliens possess. However, Wikus still can’t see it. Christopher’s son compares his arm to Wikus’ alien arm saying “We are the same.” Wikus then recoils saying “We’re not the f**king same.”
Christopher then sees the abomination that MNU is doing to his people in the experimenting room at MNU headquarters. We now see two humanities, but neither can seem to see the other’s. We see this as Christopher gets ready to leave on the ship. He tells Wikus that the cure will take three years because he wants to rescue his people first, but Wikus only helped him to get his own life back so he doesn’t take the news well. Wikus and Christopher’s disagreement result in both of them being captured. Christopher’s son then activates a robot to rescue Wikus. The child has no reason to show any kindness to Wikus, it’s because of him that his father could potentially die at any moment. However, it could be argued that this is what convinces Wikus beyond a shadow of a doubt that aliens possess a humanity that he, too, has. Wikus rescues Christopher from imminent death, agreeing yet again to get him and his boy onto the ship. It’s here, as Wikus holds MNU and the D-9 mobsters at bay, that we see Wikus deliberately put his own life and his own future on hold so that Christopher and his people can free themselves from discrimination on Earth. Christopher recognizes this and promises that he’ll return in three years to cure him, recognizing Wikus’ desire to get his own life back as well.
Wikus’ legacy to the people in the film is one of resentfulness and scientific curiosity, but the legacy he leaves audiences is one of humbleness. We see a man full of humanity recognize the humanity of another race alien to his own. By deliberately putting his own life in jeopardy so that the race of aliens he once despised can regain the life they once had, we see the purist attribute mankind has to offer: selflessness.
The final shot shows a Wikus turned fully into an alien, crafting a flower out of junk that he will eventually give to his wife. This image now shows an alien, but is it still Wikus? To see Wikus still clinging onto the hope of Christopher’s return and of getting his life back shows that, whether alien or not, the humanity that we saw in Wikus can exist and does exist in both human and alien alike.