We here at Screen Rant make it a point to stay engaged with our readers (if you haven’t seen our epic comment sections) and usually – albeit after much debate – our forums reach some kind of equilibrium of opinion – if only settling into the usual left, right, middle ground spectrum.
The reaction to District 9, Neil Blomkamp’s feature-film debut about refugee aliens living in Johannesburg, South Africa, has been surprising. While the movie is earning high praise from critics (including us) and enjoyed a strong opening weekend at the box office, there is still a minority opinion floating around that this film isn’t as great as people are saying it is. And, despite high praise from just about all of us on the Screen Rant staff, there have been some strongly expressed criticism from a considerable pool of our readership.
So let’s talk about it! What is so right (or so wrong) about District 9?
[WARNING: This Article Contains Heavy Spoilers about District 9]
THE ANALOGY APPROACH
Ok, so the elephant in the room to address first is the whole Alien/Refugee analogy that District 9 (purposely or incidentally – I’m sure it’ll be said to be both) inspires. This issue alone has sparked some strong differences in opinion about whether the film should have taken this particular narrative approach and/or whether it succeeds in it.
As to the question of whether or not the film SHOULD HAVE taken the analogous approach: not really anybody’s (but the filmmakers) place to say. However, I will say that sci-fi at its BEST has always been about analogous storytelling – something fantastic as hyperbole for something real and relevant – an whenever the genre leans too far toward the “something fantastic” end of things without accommodating the “something real and relevant” part, sci-fi becomes little more than a playground for geeks.
District 9 took a bold (risky?) step with its narrative angle. But after two viewings of the film I maintain that it succeeds – not only because it gets my mind thinking beyond the fantastic elements of sci-fi and about the world around me – but because it does so while never failing to provide plenty of nourishment for the imagination. District 9 also forced me to (for the first time) be critical of certain conventions of the sci-fi genre that (IMHO) have long gone unquestioned:
Why do we always assume that aliens who have advanced technology are automatically “better” than us?
What if alien society was as flawed and often dysfunctional as human society?
Blomkamp himself made it clear during the District 9 panel at Comic-Con this year that the “Prawns” were inspired by the concept of insects who have been separated from their leadership (forcibly emancipated in a sense) and are facing the challenges of thinking and fending for themselves.
So what if Aliens had to face the same individualistic choices and challenges we humans face? Some would kill, some wouldn’t; some would excel physically or mentally, some wouldn’t; some would be compassionate, some wouldn’t; they’d each make their own choices, have their own emotions, politics, etc…
ALIENS FOR THE 21st CENTURY
…I never realized until District 9 how easily (or for how long) sci-fi has been spoon-feeding us the notion of monotonous alien races. It’s mostly, “Hey we’re Klingons and we’re like this!” or “We’re Predators and we do this!” Then we eventually get that one autonomous alien who is the conflicted exception to the stereotype rule – or, at best, an alien culture split into fractions by some kind of superficial/ideological difference. What District 9 presented was a much fresher and challenging concept to deal with: an alien race that doesn’t have its s@#$ together.
Now, I’m not fighting some crusade for diversity rights for “alien actors” – don’t get me wrong. What I’m saying is that District 9 managed to present an interesting and (here is the important part) thought-provoking concept of individuals and society (alien or human) by holding it up against a worldly situation we can understand. That’s good sci-fi, and to write it off or not acknowledge it as such I believe is unfair.
But of course, some people have argued (you can check our comment thread) that (to paraphrase) ‘using aliens as a sort of bait-and-switch for a “Woe is Africa” message’ is the FARTHEST thing from originality.
I don’t think it needs to be debated that District 9 does in fact try to say something about South Africa (or maybe Africa as a whole?) and the experiences of its peoples. But hey, naysayers, all that stuff about a fresh look at aliens and new conventions introduced into the sci-fi genre, is also taking place in this film. The movie is always working on (at least) two levels; I know that a lot of people these days don’t bother to read great literature, but historically speaking, the greatest stories told are usually the ones that work on multiple levels while effectively relating a central tale.
District 9 – for better or worse – inspires new considerations about a fantastic concept (aliens) while simultaneously giving us new reason to consider the realities of our own world. Sounds like an accomplishment to me.
STORY vs. PREMISE
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 him 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.
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?)
GOOD FILMMAKING – DO YOU RECOGNIZE IT?
We live in a dangerous time when an entire generation of naive youngsters think that Michael Bay is a visionary genius for making Transformers 2. Gone are the days of Hitchcock and Kubrick and the only time we use the term “auteur” anymore is when describing just how gloriously terrible of a filmmaker Uwe Boll really is.
Before District 9, Neil Blomkamp was making short films and commercials that were so innovative and spectacular he was handed the keys to the Halo movie franchise (if only briefly) and attracted the attention of Peter Jackson, another innovative and spectacular filmmaker working in the industry today. District 9 was made for approximately $30 million, whereas big studios today can’t get the mileage (f/x or story-wise) out of films with 3x that budget (see: G.I. Joe).
Good people, the hype is not empty or undeserved: Neil Blomkamp is an extremely talented and visionary filmmaker with a long career ahead of him. How anybody does not recognize that fact makes me suddenly realize why Transformers 2 broke box office records.
Can it really be true that people have become so numbed that they don’t recognize great filmmaking when they see it anymore? If you think I’m off-base asking that question, let’s just remember the total lack of respect shown to The Dark Knight once award season rolled around last year…
Nowadays, we live in the wonderful era of “It’s only your opinion, man.” There are no absolutes – “A” is only “A” if somebody has the opinion that it is and the notion of “quality” has become just another subjective perception that people choose to believe in or not. This District 9 debate has me actually worried that Mediocrity has run so rampant, it’s become too scary to admit that in a majority of cases, we’re wallowing neck-deep in it. And while it might be easier to feel semi-satisfied when there is no such thing as low standard, it becomes equally impossible to enjoy the heights and thrills of experiencing something exceptional, too.
That said, it guess the verdict about District 9 – clearly a good movie and a fantastic sci-fi entry – will somehow continue to be debated…
In the meantime I’m sure there is A LOT you want to say to me. So have at it. See you in the comment section.