A number of years ago, one of my children asked me whether he should get involved with a major national organization and assume a position of leadership within it. He felt that such involvement would be good professionally because it would enable him to connect with many of the movers and shapers in the community. I advised him not to do so since I felt he had other important priorities in his life. Being an officer would take up much time that might better be put to use in other endeavors. Moreover, I shared with him the famous Mishna from The Ethics of the Fathers, which instructs man not to get close with those in power for they will not be with you when times are tough. You cannot rely on them for support, even when your position on an issue is morally correct.
This is what informs the opening scenes of District 9, an adrenalin-filled action film that depicts in visceral detail the painful consequences for one man who innocently becomes part of the power elite as it deals with how to treat a space ship of aliens that mysteriously finds itself lost in the sky above Johannesburg, South Africa. The occupants of the stranded ship eventually are given refuge in a government-funded camp, where at first they are treated with respect and curiosity, but eventually are despised and shunned by the locals as sources of civil chaos and disease.
The agency charged with transferring this alien population of 1.8 million to a new location is Multi-National United (MNU), a private company whose true interest is not the aliens but the sophisticated weaponry which they possess. The weapons can only be used by the aliens because of their unique skeletal structure, and MNU wants to adapt this weaponry for human use.
When MNU begins this transfer, they give an administrative post to Wikus van der Merwe, son-in-law of one of the principals in the company, whose life is governed by the profit motive. Wikus, in contrast, is a gentle man who simply wants to do the right thing: to follow the rules of his superiors at work and to help the aliens. At first he relishes his new position, but he soon learns that supervising the transfer of so many aliens brings with it great personal risk. He is contaminated by a mysterious black fluid that he mishandles and within hours begins to morph into a “prawn,” the name given to the alien beings.
The metamorphosis at first affects his arm, which now is able to fire the alien weapons. MNU takes Wikus into custody and performs experiments on him to determine if they can use his DNA to figure out a way for humans to take advantage of the aliens’ advanced weaponry. With the permission of his father-in-law, one of the power elite, they decide to harvest his organs so they can have the best chance of replicating Wikus’ DNA and allow other humans to take advantage of the aliens’ weapon technology. As they attempt to harvest his organs, Wikus breaks free and flees to District 9, the slum where the prawns are living. It is here that he can blend in and search for a way to return to a normal life.
Wikis pays a steep price because of his involvement with the power elite. It changes him physically and destroys his marriage. District 9 reminds us that although there is glamour and notoriety when one is part of the inner circle of people who set policy and control outcomes, there are also grave risks. Jewish tradition shuns striving for glory and honor. Fame is transient and eludes the one who seeks it. When faced with such a temptation, our Sages caution us to stay focused on our own life’s mission, not those of others who are willing to sacrifice others to keep their own political positions strong.