District 9 is a perfect example of the primary story strategy on which the worldwide entertainment business is based: use a popular genre as a vehicle to carry a larger theme.
A genre is a story model, but to understand the supreme power of genre in international cinema you have to break down both of those words.
“Model” involves the meaning package, like love, action, detective and science fiction. Why are there different story models? Because each expresses a different theme, each gives the audience a different strategy for how to live a good life.
“Story” means narrative drive, by far the single biggest element in a movie’s popularity worldwide. District 9 is more proof that movie stars don’t cause blockbusters, narrative does. For years I’ve been crying in the wilderness that the movie star strategy is the second biggest fallacy in movie history, right after the French auteur theory that says that the director, not the writer, is the author of the film.
If you want to see why a movie succeeds or fails with audiences worldwide, you’ll find 90% of your answer in the success or failure of its narrative drive. Besides expressing a unique thematic package to the audience, each genre presents a highly streamlined form of narrative drive. Genres remove the padding that kills most scripts, which is why you need to master the story beats of your genre, along with its thematic package, if you want to win the international screenplay sweepstakes.
So what is the narrative strategy and thematic package of the surprise blockbuster, District 9?
District 9 is a combination of science fiction and horror, with strong action elements thrown in. Putting science fiction and horror together is quite common because their thematic packages have a number of important similarities. Horror is about defeating the monster, the outsider, the inhuman trying to enter the human community, especially when that community is on the small scale of the family or the hero’s own mind.
Science fiction often deals with encountering the alien, the outsider on the social or universal scale. Here the opposition is not between the hero and the intimate, but terrifying other, it is between mankind and some other life form, or mankind and robot, or machine man.
When you look at how similar these two genres are in their deeper thematic package, the surprise of District 9 is not that it is a futuristic apartheid story set in Johannesburg, South Africa, but that it took so long for a writer to do it. South Africa, of course, was the site of the worst apartheid since the Nazis.
Those of us who like to think we aren’t racist tend to associate racism with demeaning and hurtful words, and that’s so passé now that we have a black President. But racism is really about how people live, or don’t live, and that is far from passé in the world today. It’s officially sanctioned slavery, resulting in such poverty that the oppressed race literally lives like animals, beasts of burden living in pens. And racism is always justified by the dominant race thinking of the “other” as less than human.
Writers Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell could have expressed this worldwide systemic nightmare using the drama form, which explores psychological and social issues with depth and complexity. But where’s the entertainment in that? And where’s the audience? So Blomkamp and Tatchell sacrificed complexity for narrative drive, and chose the perfect genres, horror and science fiction, to drive the story home with a worldwide audience.
The great trick to the narrative drive of District 9 is that the writers didn’t just hit the standard science fiction-horror story beats. They knew their genres so well they were able to transcend them, something I emphasize a lot in the Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Class. They used the classic structural twist found in the best horror, going back to the first and still greatest horror story of all time, Frankenstein: at some point in the story, the hero becomes the monster and the monster becomes the hero.
The main character, Wikus, starts off as an extremely likable but somewhat dense man who is put in charge of moving the aliens from their ghetto in Johannesburg to a new ghetto many miles away. These aliens are monstrous, terrifying creatures to us – both characters and audience — forced to live like animals and referred to as “prawns.”
The structural flip occurs when Wikus and his men attempt to force these aliens out of the shacks they call home. And a strange thing begins to happen to the audience. At first we side with our sympathetic but dim main character as he tries to evict these disgusting creatures. I certainly wouldn’t want them living near my house. But when our hero and the other humans are “forced” to escalate their methods to move the creatures, the audience starts to root for the non-humans and sees the humans as the real monsters.
The writers realized that the horror story is an extremely small-scale form that would run out of narrative fuel fairly quickly. After all, how many times can you hit the same story beat of humans persecuting aliens. So, about half way in, they turned the script into an action picture, which they accomplished by changing the hero’s desire line. Instead of persecuting the aliens, now he wants to get the cylinder, and he will use whatever firepower he can find to blow the bad guys away.
That’s also when the audience discovers that the true opponents of this film are the human authorities, led by the head soldier, a ruthless white Afrikaaner hunting aliens as he once hunted the “kaffir.”
And here the writers returned to the classic horror structure flip, but this time with a science fiction gloss: the hero becomes a robot to protect the aliens. The irony is that by becoming a robot he thereby proves his greater humanity when he sacrifices for the monster.
As you watch District 9, be amazed at the CGI they were able to get onscreen for a fraction of what it would have cost a Hollywood studio. But the real lesson of this film, and the key to its worldwide blockbuster appeal, lies in the script. These writers are masters of story, with such knowledge of their genres that they not only matched their theme to the right story forms, they transcended their forms to do something truly original..