The District 9 Debate: Excellent Film… Or Overrated?

Published 5 years ago by , Updated September 8th, 2009 at 10:04 pm,

STORY vs. PREMISE

district 9 trailer The District 9 Debate: Excellent Film... Or Overrated?

This is the one that is really bugging me. I don’t know if a lot of people write creatively, but assuming you all have actual lives and don’t engage in the practice of creative writing, take it from this loser (warning I’m about to geek-out): there is a difference between story and premise.

I keep reading that people are pissed-off about the (again, paraphrasing) ‘Swiss-cheese plot’ of District 9:

They never say where the aliens come from!

They never say why they came!

They never show what happens with the relocation!

They build it up and then nothing happens, that alien just leaves and we don’t know what happens!

Why didn’t the Aliens just gang up and kill everybody and conquer District 9 if they were stronger!

IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!!! ARGGGHHHH!

Ok let’s go over this:

Premise = a framework for a story – i.e., the conditions, circumstances, time, place, etc. in which the story is told.

Story = the narrative (and emotional) arc which occurs within the premise.

For some reason District 9 has people lost on this. The PREMISE is that aliens land over Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 years in the past. Nobody knows why or how they came to be stuck there. We discover the aliens, nurse them back to health, and give them the same basic low-standard of aid we “compassionate” human beings offer to all animals and peoples. There’s the usual amount of semi-integration and (attempted) cultural blending and eventually things settle into the tenuous co-existence that often forms between different races, ethnicities, religions and nations.

Is it really THAT much of a stretch, people? To believe that after 20 years – after the initial shock and awe and the preconceived notions and/or fears all wore off – that we would treat aliens stranded on our planet that much differently than the vision laid out by District 9? Is it REALLY that much of a stretch?

As for those who object to HOW the premise is introduced (via snippets of footage from news and documentary programs) – how the hell else do we accumulate information and “learn” about the world? You down at the library every night reading up? Or are you watching TV or better yet, on the internet where they have info already cut into neat little soundbites for consumption? And the info is hardly ever complete: we get it snippet by snippet, soundbite by soundbite, and try to keep it all arranged in our heads. AND WE BELIEVE WHAT SEE, MOST OF US. I couldn’t think of a better way to introduce the premise of this film than the way it was done – or how effectively media, television and perception are addressed over and over again in the story.

Speaking of the STORY in District 9 – it’s not about the aliens, guys, it’s about the emontional journey of Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely), a man who starts out as the ultimate embodiment of bureaucratic mediocrity unjustly handed authority, who ultimately learns compassion and respect for those he once thought alien to himĀ  after he’s forced to see the world (literally) through their eyes. That story happens within the premise, but the narrative obligation is not to answer every question raised by the premise: The job of THIS STORY was to take us on a very down-to-earth emotional arc through an alternate (but conceivable) reality. And, to his credit, Sharito Copely almost single-handedly pulls that off in a gripping and believable performance. Kudos.

district 9 wikus alien The District 9 Debate: Excellent Film... Or Overrated?

Copely in District 9

I’ll also concede that District 9 didn’t reinvent the wheel with its “Walk a mile in another’s shoes” story. But it sure did overhaul the wagon that wheel goes on. Let’s face it, after Shakespeare and The Simpsons everything has pretty much been done and all great stories have been told: The trick is telling them in new ways so that the important messages they convey always stay relevant with changing times. District 9 did that pretty effectively and IMHO, pretty powerfully.

Let’s not confuse the story with the premise, people. Arguments I’m hearing about “plot holes” that never got filled in regards to where the aliens came from, why the came, what happened during the relocation – they’re all irrelevant to the story of Wikus Van De Merwe and his experiences in District 9. Those questions are all relevant to the premise, yes, and maybe in the subsequent (and inevitable) District 9 sequels we’ll learn ALL those answers. But frankly, hearing those facts won’t be nearly as compelling for me as the story of this film was.

I guess some people still haven’t learned from Lost or The Matrix Trilogy and what can go wrong when you have to have every single element of your premise – and any “lingering mysteries” surrounding it – explained at length. I guess people have forgotten where the boarder between what needs to be explained, and what can be left to the imagination, falls.

Do people even believe in imagination anymore? (Get the joke?)

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  1. hello

    I just stumbled upon this article, and I must say it was a pleasure reading it (even with the spelling errors
    which happens when you put great effort into colorful writing).

    yes, I love D9 even before all the reviews and popularity, I thought it was very well done on so many levels.
    even the marketing campaign was very well done.
    I can’t help but watch it again and yes maybe even again.

    I agree on the points in your review, we truly live in the golden age of mediocrity, an age I hope will
    soon come to an end. so called reality TV must die!!!

    k

    a movie about facebook – are you effen kidding me?!!!

  2. Hi guys,
    I only found this article by accident but I just want to add my two cents now.
    After having watched district 9 a year ago I have almost completely forgotten it by now.
    Not becouse it is a terrible movie, not becouse it has a lame message or even bad acting. No I have forgotten it becouse it just wasn’t that impressive overall and I would never call it a sci-fi classic. The movie starts off with a great premise but it is trying so hard to convey its message that by the end I have not really cared for the characters or even the actual story yet. What I think most people who praide the movie so much becouse of its cutural relevance forget, is that being spot on with your message does not make it a brilliant movie.

    The reason why I prefer message laden sci-fi such as the new battlestar galactica and maybe even firefly (along with the movie serenity) better than district 9 is becouse they first and foremost tell a story about strong characters. Where in my opinion district 9 falls short, is that it is essentially a story about a conflict that happens to envolve characters. In the end it makes the world of district 9′s characters just as forgetable as most refugees faces you see on tv.

    Don’t get me wrong it is a good movie it’s just not great, but it was darn close. Becouse by the time you finally get to see something of the heart of these characters, their motivations, their real aspects that matter, the entire movie transforms into a michael bay flick and ends on a completely over the top holywood note that left me careless for District 9 and its world.

  3. My son and I watch D9 twice in theaters when it came out. Watched it on DVD again today. We both think it’s a great movie.

    Am I the only one trying to find out if the small ship in D9 was inspired by Firefly? Same two engines…