Tuesday, March 1, 2016

District 9: A Classical Monomyth

Theatrical poster for District 9, Copyright © 2009
by TriStar Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Serves as "cover art" to identify the article's topic.
Spoiler Alert. I've been meaning to write this review for a while now. My husband introduced me to the film District 9 (2009), interested if I thought that it followed the American monomyth. I was very interested to find that it did not. District 9 is a very satisfying film about alien who come to Earth as refugees and end up under the supervision of Multi-National United in a slum called District 9 located in South Africa. A field agent named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) contacts a virus that begins to change his DNA, and he must go to the aliens, known as "Prawns", for help.

Unlike the American monomyth, the classical monomyth can be traced back nearly as far as there are stories in every culture. Joseph Campbell writes about it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is characterized by three steps: separation, initiation, and return. Campbell summarizes, "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (30).

My article "Do You Belong to a Cult?"
discusses some of the implications
of the American monomyth
Separation

Wikus recieves the "Call to Adventure" in the form of the "virus" (for lack of a better term). The Call is always irresistible. Initially, Wikus tries to down-play the changes occurring within his body and to hide them. Failing this, he even attempts to cut off his alien arm. However, he cannot refuse the Call. He is slowly turning into a Prawn.

His "Guide" or "supernatural helper" is Christopher, a Prawn who is working on a plan to take his kin away from Earth. The Guide character, according to Campbell, is often the one who delivers the Call to Adventure and also bestows the hero with "amulets" to help him. Christopher is the one who made the substance that infects Wikus, even though that was not its original purpose. As a result, Wikus begins to change and receives a Prawn arm which can fire the alien weapons and use their technology. 

Wikus is separated from humanity during this phase and enters the world of the Prawns in District 9.

Initiation

The classical monomyth is all about personal growth. In the Initiation section, Wikus learns a great deal about the creatures he helped to oppress. He becomes more open-minded about their worth as individuals and their culture. He begins to see humanity differently as well. At the climax of the story he is able to set aside his own needs and goals to help Christopher leave Earth.

Often the hero of the classical monomyth undergoes a symbolic (occasionally literal) death. Campbell explains that this death and rebirth symbolize "the familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit" (51). Wikus' death is assumed by the people he was forced to leave behind. His rumored death is the symbolic one Campbell describes. He has changed and when he returns he will be a different man.

Return

District 9 is interesting particularly because it lacks the Return phase of the classical monomyth. The story ends with Christopher leaving Earth, and Wikus has changed completely into a Prawn. However, it is implied that Christopher will come back and bring with him the cure to return Wikus to his human form. It is further implied that Wikus will be able to share the things he learned with the rest of humanity, as a boon. Some of the boon is already being applied through his actions. Multi-National United is being investigated for their actions and people are beginning to view the Prawn more positively.

District 9 is, perhaps, so satisfying as a story because it references the cycle that has been present in human stories for generations. It is especially important because it makes the point that the two worlds Wikus inhabits are the same. He leaves "humanity" and returns to "humanity", but his experiences in this "other" world are valuable and applicable to humanity because he has not really gone anywhere. 


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973. Print.

District 9. Dir. Neill Blomkamp. Perf. Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope.  TriStar Pictures, 2009. DVD.

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