Realistic Science Fiction: District 9

Scene-from-District-9-200-001This is an amazing film, both for what it sets out to do, and for what it accomplishes.  Taking the form of a documentary, it brings science fiction as close to real as I’ve ever seen it.  It is the documentary form, I think, that convinces a viewer that this is happening, or has happened.  

The film is about what would happen if aliens came to Earth powerless and malnourished.  Human kindness would collide with our own aversion to aliens and suddenly you have camps where the aliens are kept.  It’s a brilliant stroke to make this set in South Africa and not New York or LA or London.  

This film will surprise you at every moment.  I found myself, a film junkie, a sci-fi enthusiast, completely unprepared for where the movie would take me until it took me there.  The writing is superb.  You can’t find a traditional plot here anywhere.  

Certainly we’ve come to an age where we can make special effects seem real—Peter Jackson, the producer and Neill Blomkamp, the director, have gone out of their way to make you see the special effects as realistically as possible.  Yes, the insectoid aliens are CGI, but there’s not a lot of special effects here that are obvious.  God bless ’em, effects are being smoothed into a film now.  

This is not a mockumentary, whose job it is to make you laugh; it is filmed as a documentary to trick your brain into accepting its premise.  And it works.  I remember reading Dracula by Bram Stoker, as a kid.  And I hated the diary parts—but it is the story in letters that make that novel all the more horrifying because the author didn’t want it to seem like fiction.  They wanted you scared because these were actual letters.  It was more creepy to do it that way.  And this film, using documentary style–down to the archived tapes, the dates at the bottom, the steadycam moments–makes you think that someone pieced this together from twenty years of real footage.  Some of it is grainy, some of it is blurry.  

If you want realistic science fiction, you blend the techniques and technology we have now with the strange and possible technology; you bring in recognizable cultural reactions (the Nigerians scamming the aliens), historical patterns of behavior (Nazi experimentation), all without winking at the audience.  Letting them react.  They will think it’s real–because you have torn away what they expect in a movie.  

You expect a hero.  The main character is an idiot, really.  So, he’s not Bruce Willis.  He’s not super-intelligent, and rarely does the right thing.  But what an interesting character!   Again, if you are going for realistic science fiction, your main character may not be the best man or woman on the planet–but they are pivotal and they can learn.  A learning character is all you need.  

The movie is brilliant on many levels.  It works as a science fiction thriller, yes.  But it also works as a metaphor for immigration, for refugees, and for the slums that are in South Africa.  Anytime a people are empowered over another people, stupid things happen to us.  The main character of the movie really is us–as we treat other people as alien.  That shift of power is the focus of the film, I think, and makes the most poignant statement.  Given the right circumstances, human kindness can become dispassionate, cold power.

And what it takes to regain a sense of humanity, perhaps, is to lose it altogether.  But I won’t spoil any of the movie.  I’m so thrilled with the movie, I know that sci-fi junkies will love it and I know people who prefer realism and a smart script will love it.  

I also know that if you have a passion for oppressed people in the world, and the injustice present in nations around the world who have subjugated another race, then you will also find the reflection of that, and the reflection, maybe, of hope.

3 thoughts on “Realistic Science Fiction: District 9

  1. Dave August 17, 2009 / 9:59

    *** Spoiler Alert ***
    I disagree that there was no traditional plot, it was just blended in seamlessly. On the surface, the story is about what happens to a bunch of aliens when they show up on earth. But, plot is really about what happens when a character has a need and follows that need to it’s conclusion. And in this story, the character we’re following is not one of the aliens. It’s about a man seeking validation in his life and his marriage, accepting the lead role of an operation with many ethical/legal problems. He was given the new role by his father in-law, so his aim is to be successful so that he can impress that man, and by so doing, also impress his wife. He offers some token tribute to following the law, but when push comes to shove, he’s more interested in success than truth. But when he becomes the recipient of the abuse, to the writer’s credit, they don’t transform him into a man bent on justice, but rather he becomes a man who despertley wants to go back to they way things were, to be with his wife again at all costs. In the end of the story he even betrays the Prawn who helped him, because he doesn’t want to wait 3 years for help. He is single minded in his pursuit of what he wants. He eventually helps the Prawn but only because he’s exhausted all other avenues. He’s a very reluctant hero who’s only saving grace is in how much he loves his wife.

    So, the story question for this movie is: will the “hero” retain or enhance the love and affection of his wife? And the answer is: not in this movie, but there’s some hope for the next. As with many who are disenfranchised, the Prawns lives are just collateral damage to the interests of those in power.

  2. jstueart August 17, 2009 / 9:59

    Good points, Dave. I hadn’t looked at it closely enough from that angle.

    But, let me say, that I couldn’t see a trad. plot coming when I was watching the show. He was such an atypical hero–and the plot seemed more about the mileu of the alien relocation than him at first; certainly I was more fascinated by the situation than the character. And even when the character was forced to become involved in the alien situation, I still didn’t see this as Luke Skywalker, reluctant hero, and I couldn’t find the archetypes you see strung out in most science fiction films…

    To me, the film was breaking rules and only in retrospect could I agree with you that, yes, this was the plot…. They style–documentary-esque–really hides the plot—

    I still can’t say it’s traditional, meaning the “same kind of plot” you see all the time, or the “same working out of plot” that you see all the time.

    This movie surprised and moved me on far deeper levels than this man trying to recapture what “was” in his life. Surely, the aliens were in the same spot. They wanted to recapture “what was” in their lives as well, but only Christopher and his buddy really seemed to be working towards that goal–the rest were drones. Even though you’ve isolated our hero’s motivation—it wasn’t that simple through the movie. And that’s what I love!

  3. Dave August 18, 2009 / 9:59

    I was also very surprised about the movie and agree it was not “traditional” on many levels. The setting or millieu was very different but presented in such a matter of fact way that the feel of reality was much stronger than in most SF films. I found the experience very refreshing.

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